November 19, 2012

After years of honing his craft, versatile guitarist Jake Schwartz has become an integral part of the hottest ticket on Broadway rocking out nightly in the orchestra pit of the Eugene O’Neil Theater with ‘The Book of Mormon.’ And he credits the union for helping him get there.

“I’ve been a Local 802 member continuously since 1999, when I started subbing on my first Broadway show ‘Footloose,’ which was how I got started in New York theater,” the  Mt. Kisco, NY native tells LaborPress. “Joining the union was the first step that led to cultivating my Broadway career. Besides the obvious benefit of being able to work on shows, I also value the health insurance and custom earplugs I have received from Local 802.”

For Schwartz, the genesis of the ‘Mormon’ gig actually began four years ago when Music Director Stephen Oremus first asked the 37-year-old to play a reading for a show that ‘South Park’ creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone were working on.

“At the time, I was a guitar sub for a handful of Broadway shows, including ‘Wicked,’ where Stephen was conducting at the time,” Schwartz says. “Over several years, I did a few readings of the show that would become ‘The Book of Mormon.’ So, I guess that was my audition process which eventually led to me landing the Broadway chair in 2011.”

Playing in the Broadway pits is tough, and Schwartz will be the first to say that talent alone is not enough. In addition to being flexible, a good reader and highly adaptable to a variety of musical genres and styles, the Local 802 musician is also mindful of the intangibles.

“I find that having a warm and easy-going personality is absolutely a must in order to survive in this business,” Schwartz says. “There’s an overwhelming number of ultra-talented musicians all over NYC, so having a pleasant and inviting vibe is always welcome – especially since most Broadway pits are pretty small quarters, and it’s a tight knit community where your reputation is your calling card.”

Despite playing eight shows a week with ‘The Book of Mormon,’ Schwartz also regularly gigs at 55 Bar in the West Village, as well as, other venues around NYC with his funk-rock band Van Davis. The group, consisting of Schwartz, drummer Patrick Carmichael and bassist Jon Price, began back in 2002. Broadway ‘FELA’ alum Abena Koomson recently joined the Van Davis trio as lead vocalist and co-songwriter.

“One of the most appealing things of having a Broadway gig is the ability to sub out when we have other gigs or projects,” Schwartz says. “This allows me some flexibility to book evening shows for my funk-rock band Van Davis. Van Davis has a studio space in Midtown where we can rehearse twice a week as a band, or each of us can practice our instruments in the room individually, which we’re grateful for, so we can experiment and expand our musical horizons.”

The group will head into the studio to record new music with Koomson this winter. They expect to tour the northeast after those sessions wrap.

Schwartz started out playing piano at age 7. He dove into guitar after a family move to New Jersey, and seeing super-group Van Halen in 1984.

“My father is a musician, my mother is a dancer and my brother is a drummer, so I grew up in a very musical and artistic environment,” Schwartz says. “That certainly helped me in my musical journey.”

Schwartz got his first guitar teacher at age 12, and continued to play the six-stringed instrument, as well as piano, throughout high school. His love of music eventually compelled him to pursue a Classical Guitar/Music Education Degree from William Paterson University in New Jersey. Following graduation, Schwartz taught middle school music and choir for 3-and-a-half years before the urge to rock eventually brought him to Broadway.

“I ended up leaving my teaching position to play with a rock band and tour the country,” Schwartz says. “By 2002, I moved to NYC and decided to make my career here, forming my own band and beginning to sub more frequently on and off Broadway.”

The critically-acclaimed ‘Book of Mormon’ challenges the accomplished musician on a number of different levels.

“There are quite a few challenges with working on this show, but the one that stands out is keeping the show fresh after playing the same music countless times,” Schwartz says. “The score calls for a good deal of energy, so I keep that in mind every time I play.  Luckily, it’s a fun show that allows some flexibility to change things up here and there in little spots, which is also fun.”

LaborPress readers can log onto to find out where Schwartz’ band will be playing next.


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