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Blugold alumnus nominated for multiple Tony Awards in producing debut

Photo caption: Larry Lelli, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1990 with a degree in applied instrumental music, has had a nearly 30-year career on Broadway, performing as a drummer and percussionist.

Larry Lelli didn’t know that his undergraduate work helping to organize Jazz Fest on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus would give him the skills to be a producer for two Tony Award-nominated Broadway shows more than three decades later.

“Jazz Fest was a massive operation that taught me so much about, literally, operating a Broadway show,” Lelli says of the annual event that brings hundreds of middle and high school music students to campus. “We have all those same elements on Broadway, just on a much grander, larger scale.”

Lelli, a 1990 applied instrumental music graduate, has had a nearly 30-year Broadway career performing as a drummer and percussionist. Last year, for the first time, he was a co-producer for two Broadway musicals — “Water for Elephants” and “Gutenberg! The Musical!” Both shows are nominated for 2024 Tony Awards — “Water for Elephants” for best musical and “Gutenberg! The Musical!” for best revival of a musical.

Larry Lelli

Dual Tony nominations make Lelli feel like “the luckiest drummer boy in the world.”

“It’s kind of ridiculously lucky,” Lelli says. “To have my first two musicals that I have produced both be nominated for Tonys is an outrageous and outlandish thing to even think about. I’m just kind of on top of the world.”

The Tony Awards will be given out on Sunday, June 16, at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City and will be broadcast on CBS.

The nominations have Lelli reminiscing about his days at UW-Eau Claire, where he was actively involved in the music program, playing drums in a jazz band and in a house band at The Cabin. Just as important to Lelli’s career was his work helping produce the annual “Cabaret” musical and organizing Jazz Fest that opened his eyes and mind to the behind-the-scenes work — from orchestrating music to working with corporate sponsors — that goes into a production.

“I learned so many important skills — how to work with people, how to delegate tasks to team members,” Lelli says. “I learned so much about managing people, managing productions and running a company. It’s really wild to think back on it all now.”

Lelli credits Robert Baca, professor of trumpet and director of UW-Eau Claire's jazz studies, and Ronald Keezer, a former associate professor of music, for a supportive learning environment and a “wonderful educational experience.” Baca isn’t surprised that Lelli is reaching the heights of Broadway and being nominated for high-caliber awards.

“While attending UW-Eau Claire, he was the epitome of a positive, principle-oriented person,” Baca says. “He worked nonstop on his short- and long-range goals and the word ‘limit’ was not in his vocabulary for a period of over 30 years. This award simply draws attention to the results capable of a person with Larry’s gifts. UW-Eau Claire was fortunate to have Larry as a part of our environment.”

Lelli’s successful musical career on Broadway includes performing and conducting in shows such as “The Producers,” “Jekyll & Hyde” and “A Christmas Story, The Musical.” Lelli has evolved his career from being just a drummer by adding roles as conductor, music director, music supervisor, music contractor and coordinator before trying his hand at producing.

“It was quite a transition moving, as we call it, across the table,” Lelli says of becoming a producer. “There are all the people that are on stage, in the pit, behind the scenes making all the magic happen on Broadway. Then there are all these other people on the other side of the table that are involved in raising money, doing the casting, making creative decisions for the show. It’s a very different kind of mindset to be in.”

It also is big business, as the cost to produce a new Broadway show ranges from $3 million for a small play to $25 million for a massive musical production, Lelli says. He estimates that 80% of shows are not financially successful.

“It’s a lot of money, a lot is at stake,” Lelli says. “It’s very high pressure, very stressful. You have a massive responsibility to all of your investors to create something successful.”

In addition to raising money for the shows, Lelli is heavily involved in the musical aspects of his productions — crafting, underscoring and ensuring songs are in the appropriate place of the show. Once the production moves to the theater for rehearsals, he works 16-hour days with the creative team “figuring out the best way to express each moment in the show.”

“You sacrifice a lot of your life to get into this business, whether you’re a performer or producer on a Broadway show,” Lelli says. “It’s all encompassing. We have to make this kind of commitment and sacrifice to make this art.”

Lelli’s two Tony-nominated shows are very different productions. “Gutenberg! The Musical!” has a two-person cast; “Water for Elephants” is an elaborate production that combines acting, dancing and singing while a circus tent is being constructed before the audience’s eyes.

“In both of those productions, we created the best productions we possibly could,” Lelli says. “They both have been critically successful and commercially successful. The best part for me is that audiences are loving the shows. It makes me so happy that we could create great entertainment for all those people, and create hundreds of jobs for all of my friends in the industry.”

Lelli is appreciative of the Tony nominations and he hopes the productions win their respective awards. He also realizes that UW-Eau Claire helped make these moments possible.

“I didn’t know this is where I was going to end up, I didn’t know this is where my dreams and my passions were going to lead me,” Lelli says. “I’ve had the most wonderful life so far, and I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. I’ve played with some of the most famous people in the world, played in some of the biggest and most highly desirable concert halls in New York and all over the world, and I was able to do that with the education I received at UW-Eau Claire.”