Photos by Kevin Casey and Madison Jolliffe
Music student Chris Santillán has been a dedicated fan of 1970s pop music legends ABBA for most of his young life.
ABBA might not be the first band that comes to mind when pondering millennial music preferences, but Santillán has been a passionate ABBA aficionado since he was eight years old. Naturally, the first musical Santillán ever saw was the high energy, world- wide sensation ABBA vehicle Mamma Mia!, which he took in on a Grade 7 band trip. Born and raised in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, these ABBA experiences helped inspire Santillán to become the very talented piano player who specializes in theatre that he is today.
Astonishingly, a mere decade or so after his Grade 7 trip, Santillán has fulfilled a childhood dream and is now the touring as Associate Conductor of the Broadway production of Mamma Mia! Talk about being a perfect fit for a job.
Chris, thanks for sitting down with FASS. Could you give us a brief history of your musical background?
My interest in music began when I was about six or seven. I remember looking through the Yellow Pages — remember those days? — and stumbling across the ‘Music School’ section. I was fascinated by musical instruments and wanted to learn one, but couldn’t settle right away on which one. I finally decided on the drums and asked my parents to help me find a music school. It was a bit of a challenge to find a school, as most drum teachers wouldn’t accept a student so young. Instead, most schools encouraged me to start on piano.
But I was set on learning drums and eventually found a teacher who would take me on as a student. I fell in love with the instrument and kept playing for about eight years. In Grade 7, I joined the high school band and decided to pick up the clarinet which I pursued for most of my high school career. For one of our band competitions, we went to Toronto, and one of our group activities was to see a Broadway show — Mamma Mia! I was a huge ABBA fan as a kid after discovering one of their CDs in my parents’ collection, as well as an avid theatre kid, so naturally, I was ecstatic to see my first Broadway show. After seeing the show, I decided that I needed to learn the piano so I could learn to play ABBA songs and, well, I haven’t stopped playing since!
Clearly a good choice! What is it about being a pianist that you cherish?
I enjoy the versatility of the piano and the natural opportunity for collaboration that the instrument provides. As a pianist, we can perform as a soloist, with other instruments, with singers and, in a rehearsal setting particularly for musical theatre and opera, pianists are called on to serve as an orchestra themselves. Especially today, pianists need to be versatile and be proficient in various musical styles, and I enjoy this challenge because it means you never stop learning! I have a particular interest in working with singers because of the story telling aspect, and that’s probably why I’ve spent a lot of time in the theatre world.
Which instinctively must have led you to direct. How would you describe yourself as a musical director?
Most of my experience as a music director is in the theatre world, although I have worked as a music director in a church setting as well. A music director for a musical works in close collaboration with the director and choreographer to interpret a script and score for a live audience. I’ve always been drawn to the theatre and really enjoy this type of cooperation. In a musical, the music is an intrinsic element of the story, and so it is the music director’s job to help the actors tell their story through song, as well as allow instrumental accompani- ment—underscoring—to effectively capture the mood for a given scene and transitions between scenes. It’s not just about singing the right notes at the right time, but developing an understanding of how the composer views the playwright’s world. I like to see my role as a mediator between the score and the actors. This makes the rehearsal process very enjoyable and often provides for a lot of interesting discussions.
How did this all start? Why do you think you were first charmed and continue to be captivated by musical theatre?
I think my interest really developed in Grade 5 when I was part of the yearly school musical. My mom persistently encouraged me to audition for shows so I could be more involved in extra- curricular activities. I was an extremely shy kid, and it took a lot of effort to get up on stage, but there was also an indescribable magic about the stage that still continues to captivate me. And since I had a keen interest in music already, it seemed only natural that I would be attracted to an art form that combined music and the magical world of theatre together. Later in my teen years, I leaned more towards the behind the scenes side of things and realized that my particular passion was helping support actors with live musical accompaniment. My first conducting gig actually came along in Grade 8 when my music teacher asked if I would be interested in conducting the pit band for the Christmas musical. I was a little surprised by the offer since I had never conducted before, but I guess she trusted me!
As a musician, live theatre definitely presents certain unique challenges, the main one being that anything can happen! Cues can be missed, costume changes can fail, your keyboard can lose power—but the show must go on! Theatre musicians definitely need to be quick on their feet to adjust to any situation. Even though I’m not on stage as much anymore, this thrill of live performance continues to captivate me.
Having successfully turned your passion into your profession, what’s the day to day like for a Mamma Mia! Music Director?
I am the Associate Music Director for the show, which means that I work along with the Music Director to maintain the musical quality of the show. This involves occasional music rehearsals, as well as understudy rehearsals — understudies go on for a role when an actor is ill — to make sure they are well prepared. I play one of the keyboards in the pit for the shows, and once a week I get to conduct the show. But it’s not all work! I like to play tourist as much as I can, and this tour has certainly allowed me to visit a lot of the U.S. and western Canada in a short amount of time. My daily routine usually involves a trip to the local coffee shop, and lately, I’ve been making several trips to the local Waffle House while we’ve been in the South.
That sounds fantastic and delicious. Working on Mamma Mia! must be very rewarding…
This experience so far has been incredible. From a musical perspec- tive, I have indeed become a better musician and conductor. Playing a show eight times a week in various venues has definitely improved my stamina and mental focus. Working with the original Broadway creative team for the show was exciting, and admittedly a bit daunting at the start, especially knowing that we would be the final tour of this production in North America. But ultimately, I think the most rewarding part of the experience is seeing the joy we can bring to people across the continent. The show finishes with a rocking finale, a mini ABBA concert basically, and the crowds are always on their feet. There is no greater reward than seeing the smiles on people’s faces as they leave the theatre. On more than one occasion, we’ve had kids come up to the orchestra pit to tell us how they want to learn an instrument after seeing the show and it’s nostalgic because that’s how it all started for me.
Speaking of which, let’s go back a little closer to how it all started… Why did you choose Carleton?
I came to Carleton after a few years of exploring other career options. Right after high school, I was set on going to medical school, so I pursued a Science program in CÉGEP (the Quebec college system). After two years, I wasn’t so sure med school was for me, so I switched to a Phi- losophy program—I’ve always been an inquisitive person! But I couldn’t see myself pursuing a career in that discipline either. At the time, I was working on a production of Footloose with the Orpheus Musical Theatre Society in Ottawa, and I finally had an epiphany—why should music just be a hobby? Why not try making a career with music? I started to look into music programs. I wasn’t quite ready to move away from home and knew a few people who went to Carleton for Music. I went to visit the campus and was impressed by the diversity of the program and the noticeable camaraderie of the students and faculty. I left feeling like that was where I needed to be, so I decided to apply and audition and was definitely happy to receive an acceptance letter a few weeks later!
What have you gotten out of your time in Music at Carleton?
I think the biggest highlight for me is the people. The Faculty in the Music department are very approachable, and I could feel from the very beginning that they wanted me to succeed. I had many musical interests when I started the program, and I was able to explore these without being funnelled into a precise ‘stream’ within the program (for example, composition, music education or performance) as other music programs do sometimes. I studied classical piano, but also took courses in medieval music, jazz theory, and music of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. And of course, on top of this, I kept busy working on shows both on and off campus. The diversity and flexibility of the program helped me grow as a music director because music directors need to be interdisciplinary. All of the faculty were incredibly supportive of my endeavours. I do have to single out one professor in particular though, Dr. James Wright, who helped me tremendously along the way, from connecting me with the right piano teacher to supporting the creation and development of the Carleton Musical Theatre Society. He attended every musical production I worked on while at Carleton and even made a trip to Montreal to see Mamma Mia! when we were at Place des Arts in February. I am also indebted to my piano teacher Nicole Presentey who has helped me grow tremendously as a musician and pianist. I would say that all the faculty I’ve learned from have gone above and beyond to make Carleton a great place to study music.
I heard you were instrumental — apologies for the bad pun — in establishing the Carleton Musical Theatre Society…
A couple of summers ago, my good friend Madison Jolliffe and I had the crazy idea to start our own theatre company. We had just worked on
a production of Bonnie and Clyde the musical at Carleton and felt that there was enough interest in musical theatre on campus to warrant a club for musical theatre enthusiasts. We spent a good amount of that summer discussing our vision for the company and drafting a constitution (a necessary step in creating a club through the Carleton University Student Association), and within a few weeks, CMTS was born! We produced our first production in February 2016 — the classic Cabaret by Kander & Ebb at the Kailash Mital Theatre on campus. It was a great success, and we were thrilled to see such an interest in this company. I’m happy to say that the CMTS just produced a successful run of the cult hit Heathers the musical in March and plans are already being made for a third season!
Very cool! What advice would you offer to aspiring artists?
I think the biggest piece of advice I could give is to not be afraid to dream. This might sound cheesy or cliché, but I truly believe that it’s important to have dreams. Mamma Mia! starts and ends with the famous ABBA tune “I Have a Dream” — and admittedly there are times when I get a bit choked up playing that final chord because twelve years ago I was sitting in a theatre wondering “Hmm, how cool would it be to be there in the orchestra pit rocking out to ABBA tunes for two hours and forty minutes?” — and now that’s exactly what I’m doing!
Of course, making dreams a reality is another thing and in my case, it took twelve years, a lot of hard work and a lot of career path changes to get here! One thing I learned along the way is the importance of asking people for advice and finding good mentors. A couple of summers ago, I attended some workshops in NYC for musical theatre directors. One of the workshops was lead by a prominent Broadway conductor who was actually the original music director of Mamma Mia! on Broadway. At the end of the workshop, I spent a good ten minutes debating with myself whether I should go up and introduce myself and ask some questions about music directing.
I can still be shy at times! Eventually I did, and he was very approachable and open to giving me advice. He even invited me to sit in the orchestra pit with him for Matilda which he was conducting at the time. Funnily enough, I am now working for him since he is the music supervisor for Mamma Mia! in North America. Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that everyone you meet will hire you, but I think it’s important for artists to reach out to others in their field that they respect. We all start somewhere, and we’ve all had mentors along the way to help us out.
Great suggestions. What’s next for you?
Good question — I’m not sure yet! I’m keeping my ears open about opportunities on other tours, but part of me also would love to be back home and settle for a bit (and find a place to display all the ABBA records I’ve been collecting on the road!). I would like to help keep building CMTS, and I keep exploring the idea of pursuing a Masters degree at some point. I’m also hoping to start a YouTube channel soon, so keep your eyes open!
Thanks for this, Chris. Any last words?
Support the arts! Our travels across the U.S. and Canada have made me realize just how vital the arts really are, and how many threats there are to keeping the arts alive. I’ve gotten into several conversations with people about how the arts is important to them, and it has refreshed my appre- ciation for what I do and for what all artists do. Art makes people think, reflect, cry, laugh, and leave with a renewed (and hopefully more optimistic) understanding of the world. As we all know, the arts always struggle with adequate funding, so it is imperative that we all do our share to keep the arts alive in our communities.