UW-Eau Claire alumni success stories

All that jazz leads to Broadway
for alumnus Larry Lelli

Larry Lelli '90

Larry Lelli '90 has successfully broken into New York's music scene as a drummer for Broadway shows. (Photo by Bradley Lau)

This article features Larry Lelli, a 1990 UW-Eau Claire music graduate who now is a professional drummer for Broadway shows. The article, written by 1977 UW-Eau Claire journalism graduate Geri Parlin, appeared in the March 28, 2004, issue of the La Crosse Tribune and is reprinted with permission.

Also read a spring 2005 UW-Eau Claire View story about Lelli and fellow music graduate Scott Pingel '96.

By Geri Parlin '77
La Crosse Tribune

As a youngster, Larry Lelli thought jazz would be his life and his livelihood. Instead, it has been his ticket to the big time. And though he doesn't play much jazz nowadays, he knows it is his jazz training that got him where he has been, including playing for the hottest show on Broadway.

"I'm playing in the pit for ‘The Producers'," Lelli said in a phone interview. "Every night is completely sold out. It's standing room only."

Lelli, a 1986 graduate of La Crosse Central High School, said he never dreamed his career would go this way.

"I was a big jazz musician. I thought that was going to be my whole life."

It was jazz, however, that gave Lelli the training and skill he needed to tackle every musical project that has come his way.

With a jazz foundation begun at Central and built stronger at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Lelli moved to the Twin Cities upon graduation in 1990 and started playing jazz gigs around town.

In 1993, Lelli decided it was time to make a move, so he packed up his drums, went to Nashville and began hanging out in clubs. It didn't take long to make connections that would help his career.

"It was getting that first break, knowing the right people," he said. Most of all, it was being a decent person, the kind who would "get people to want to say hello to you, and want to call you back."

He liked Nashville, he said, "because it was just so casual and so comfortable and everybody was really nice. You could walk into a record label and talk to an executive.

"The cost of living was really affordable. It seemed like a good place to start."

And he got his start pretty quickly.

"My first gig was one of those kismet kind of things. I walked into a club for songwriters, ran into a guy I knew from a cruise ship," and that guy knew a drummer who was from Eau Claire. So they got to talking and that drummer gave Lelli a tip about an audition.

"This was all within the first couple weeks. It's so small, the music community," he said.

His jazz training gave him the adaptability he needed to play other kinds of music. "I had really good ears from all my years playing jazz."

The audition, which was to go on tour with country comedy duo Pinkard and Bowden, turned out to be a slam dunk.

"They auditioned 12 guys that day. I was the 12th guy. They turned around and said, ‘You've got the gig if you want it. We loved your playing. You listened to everything and you followed us, and you looked us right in the eye when you walked in, which shows you're a good person.'"

So Lelli went on tour with them, sticking with the duo for a year and a half.

"I was having a great time. I was making money playing drums. What's better than that? It was just a blast. I loved it. I knew it was what I wanted to do the rest of my life."

When the duo took a break, Lelli auditioned for Doug Stone, who was going out on tour, and he got that gig, too.

"He was going to have 10 drummers audition. I was the fourth one. We just hit it off, Doug and I. We played two songs, and he said, ‘That's really what I'm looking for.' He called off the rest of the day of auditions. We clicked personally and that was another big thing."

Lelli toured with Stone for a year and half and might still be with him, but Stone suffered a mild heart attack in December 1995 and had to call off his tour.

"Our gig was suddenly gone. It was the dead of winter and there were no auditions," Lelli recalled.

"I had met some people in New York who invited me to come up and hang out. I started coming up here and just going out and hearing musicians. It was a very different scene. It's a totally different world."

It was a world that fascinated Lelli, and he got the idea of becoming a sub for some of the drummers working in Broadway shows.

"The Broadway pit was another level. The musicianship of the players, the talent, the skill — they make it seem like it's going together seamlessly."

So he plunked down $1,000 a month for a little studio apartment not far from the Empire State Building, got rid of his car, and started riding the subway like a New Yorker.

"I would go out every night and meet new people. I was riding a really good wave," he recalled.

"I'm here maybe a month and I meet a really great guy, Ray Marchica, the drummer on ‘The Rosie O'Donnell Show.' That meeting led to another meeting with Michael Hinton, who was the drummer for ‘Miss Saigon.' He invited me to sit in the pit" during a show, Lelli said, and that one experience hooked him.

"He invited me to his house in New Jersey, threw a bunch of music up, and it was like an audition. What I really appreciate is that Michael saw that something special, that desire in me. He felt really strongly that he should give me a shot. He told me to learn the book," Lelli said, then allowed him to sub.

"Michael put his reputation on the line by having me come in. When you sub on Broadway, you don't get a rehearsal. It was terrifying. I practiced like I never did before — eight hours a day. I had prepared so hard and I wanted it so badly. I felt it was something I must do."

All that preparation paid off.

"It went really well. The conductor came back after the show and said, ‘Who are you and where did you come from?' He was really blown away. It was the best thing I could have heard."

Lelli decided to stay in New York another six months to see what would happen.

"I did get called for ‘Sunset Boulevard.' The guy had appendicitis. Whoever called me, I would say yes. I didn't do anything else."

Still, he was losing money. "The first six months I lived here, I went in the hole seven grand. I looked at it as an investment."

And the investment paid off. He learned the score for four Broadway shows and, by the end of six months, he was making his rent by subbing for shows such as "Miss Saigon" and "Beauty and the Beast."

"At one point, I was subbing nine different shows."

Because he lived close to the theater, he was the perfect choice as a sub.

"A guy could be stuck on the George Washington Bridge and he'd call me and I'd throw on my black clothes. I could get called at 7:30 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show," he said, and he'd make it to the theater on time.

"I was very determined to make a living at this and to break into the scene."

It was while subbing at the show "Jekyll and Hyde" that the main drummer left to do another show and the conductor requested that Lelli take over. While drumming there, he met rocker Sebastian Bach. He did some gigs with Bach and kept the "Jekyll and Hyde" gig.

From there, he went on to drum at "Tom Sawyer." That only ran about four months, so he went back to subbing and ended up subbing for "The Producers" which led to a full-time gig.

Now, as the drummer for "The Producers," he's about to take a three-month leave to work on a new production of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins."

"It's always changing, it's always fresh," he said. "I can deal with a little instability, a little insecurity. I'm having such a great time doing what I do."

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