Six Santa Clara Vanguard alumni recently wrapped up a three month, nationwide tour of Japan performing as cast members in a new Disney-themed spinoff of the hit musical sensation, Blast! We caught up with Benji Baker (SCV Front Ensemble 2012-2015) to talk about the show and how drum corps has prepared him for this amazing experience.
“I’ve wanted to perform with Blast! ever since I saw it live for the first time as a 7th grade band student in 2005. Then, in 2016, a conversation with a former Blast! cast member led to a 2:00 AM phone call that set me on the path to an audition,” explained Baker. “The audition involved me sending in tapes of my performances and several interviews. A big factor to me actually getting the job was my years of experience in drum corps.”
Blast! The Music of Disney, is the newest spinoff of the original Tony and Emmy Award Winning Blast! production which debuted on Broadway in 2001. The show consists of 15 Brass Players, 5 Percussionists, and 6 Visual Ensemble members performing classic Disney music from Cinderella to Moana. After an intense seven-week rehearsal and tech period, the show opened in Nanyo Yamagata, Japan on July 9th.
“Our early rehearsals were very similar to drum corps move-ins with about 9 hours of rehearsal each day; the main difference being we slept in hotels and rehearsed (mostly) inside,” said Baker, who added that their rehearsal schedule was drastically different once tour began.
“Once shows started, we wouldn’t rehearse during the day, so as performers we were responsible for maintaining performance quality on our own. We usually had a pretty good chunk of the day to go exploring and really experience the Japanese culture and lifestyle before warm up and sound check,” said Baker. “By the time we got there the crew had mostly set up the stage and instruments and we just got to come in and play.”
But how did Baker’s drum corps experience help prepare him for the life of a professional performer? Apart from strengthening his skills as a musician and teaching him valuable lessons about living life on tour, Baker says his instructors at SCV instilled a mindset and expectation for excellence. He developed this specifically from SCV Percussion Arrangers Paul and Sandi Rennick, who taught and performed in the original production of Blast!, respectively.
“Paul would often bring up Blast! as an analogy for how we should approach performing throughout the summer. The fans on opening week are paying just as much money to see the show as people who will see the same show months later near the end of tour. Every audience deserves your best,” said Baker. “I tried to remember that every day at Blast!, keeping in mind that I was responsible for making sure we put on our best performance night after night.”
Within the production, Baker explained that there are three main “roles” among the cast: the “Feature” roles, the “Chorus” roles, and the “Swing” roles – whose job is to learn everyone else’s part in their section and be able to perform in that person’s place in case of injury or sickness.
Baker was the only percussion swing in the production, which meant he was tasked with learning all music, choreography, stage directions, and costume changes for the other five percussionists. This included two features roles and three chorus members ranging from rudimental snare solos to marimba to drumset. And although this may sound intimidating to some, Baker drew upon his time in drum corps for inspiration on how to tackle the challenge.
“The staff at SCV set an expectation of professionalism that I found has carried on into my years after aging out. If we got music between camps we were expected to learn it before rehearsal, or if a change was made in the show we were responsible for making sure we made the proper adjustments,” said Baker. “The same principles applied with Blast! and approaching this job with the same standards I learned at SCV set me up for strong performances. My job in the cast kept me on alert at all times in case something went wrong, and no matter what, the show must go on!”
“Blast! The Music of Disney” closed out a massively successful tour with their final show in Okinawa, Japan on October 1st. Baker was joined by 5 fellow Santa Clara Vanguard Alumni in the cast of Blast! The Music of Disney, pictured below from Left to Right: Kaysey Thompson (SCVWG 2010), Hector Garcia (SCV Color Guard 2013-2014; SCV Winter Guard 2014-2016), Benji Baker (SCV Front Ensemble 2012-2015), Ashley Gonzalez (SCVC Color Guard 2006-2007; SCV Color Guard 2008-2011; SCV Winter Guard 2009-2010, 2012, 2015), Kaylie Hardeman (SCV Front Ensemble 2011), and Mayu Fuji (SCV Color Guard 2013).