Peck and call
A young musical director spreads his wings, and his sound.
It’s easy to imagine that musician Doug Peck is always a superamiable guy, but given the conditions of our first meeting, it’s hard to judge. Clearly it isn’t the coffee that’s got him feeling so energetic. Like people all over Chicago on this sunshine-steeped Wednesday morning, Peck is full of a particular zest—three parts elation, one part exhaustion. It’s the morning after Barack Obama’s historic victory.
Besides staying up late Tuesday night to celebrate, Peck has another reason to feel a little bit fried. He’s working full time as musical director and orchestrator on Grey Gardens, the enticing historical fiction about Jackie Kennedy’s bizarre real-life relatives, now making its Midwest premiere at Northlight Theatre. It comes on the heels of one of Peck’s biggest artistic and commercial triumphs: After winning rave reviews, Caroline, or Change proceeded to obliterate Court Theatre’s box-office records until it completed its extended run the final weekend of October.
Thanks to that extension, Peck had to hurry from Grey Gardens rehearsals in Skokie all the way down to Hyde Park to conduct Caroline. “I had one week of overlap,” he says. “Both [Court artistic director] Charlie Newell and [Northlight artistic director] BJ Jones got a lot of phone calls from me.” He’s not complaining, though; coffee and election returns aside, he naturally brims with energy.
At just 27, Peck has carved out a remarkable full-time musical career for himself. While he’s won plaudits and awards for a variety of shows, including Fiorello! at TimeLine and Dessa Rose at Apple Tree, he’s best known for his work with Newell at the Court. Peck and Newell have collaborated on so many stripped-down reinventions of great American musicals (sometimes to controversial effect), it’s become the company’s trademark. Most notably, the pair has reimagined Guys and Dolls, Carousel and Man of La Mancha. Peck also often conducts his reduced orchestrations—which he frequently writes while listening to other music, typically Wagner’s Ring Cycle—every night during Court runs, so he traveled with the cast when La Mancha transferred to Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre.
“He was 23, I think, when we first met,” Newell says. “I met this very young-looking man, and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy has a wickedly sharp and agile mind. Let’s go!’ We really bonded over the question of storytelling—how text and music and all aspects are in the service of storytelling. The first question in his mind is always, ‘How does it serve the story?’
“It’s such a joy,” Newell adds, “to have a musical mentor who is essentially half your age.”
The Chicago-born son of a writer for Rolling Stone, Peck says there’s a picture of him as a toddler sitting at a toy piano; he started studying the real thing at age eight. His love of music was always twinned with a love of theater; he studied acting (among other things) during summers at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. There was also, always, a young conductor inside him. (In high school, he played Cornelius in Hello, Dolly! “There’s actually a video of me cueing the conductor every time I’m ready to sing.”) He gave up acting during his undergrad days at Northwestern but says that background helps him relate to actors easily.
Very easily, in at least one case: Peck and actor Rob Lindley, 35, have been together for four years. (Despite his excitement for Obama’s win, Peck admits to disappointment that Californians voted to ban gay marriage.) Recently, one of Lindley’s interests has proven invaluable to the musician: Lindley is a die-hard fan of the original Grey Gardens—the 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers that turned Jackie O’s crazy-cat-lady relatives, Edith and Little Edie, and their broken-down East Hampton, New York, estate into cult icons.
Two years ago, when Peck and Jones began brainstorming about what musical to program at Northlight, the rights to Grey Gardens weren’t yet available. With an eye toward a different presidential-election scenario, they seriously considered a very different show: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. “It’s ironic because we thought, Maybe Hillary Clinton will be running for President in November, so it’ll make sense to be producing that piece,” Peck says. “But when the rights to Grey Gardens became available, we took a quick left turn.”
Along with the rest of the country.
Grey Gardens is playing at Northlight Theatre.