When the applause crescendoes during performances of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at Shea’s Performing Arts Center this week, the audience might not realize the role a Town of Tonawanda boy has played in its success.
Jeff Tanski, a 2001 St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute graduate, has been leading the orchestra and playing keyboards for “Beautiful” since it opened on Broadway in January 2014. His is not a household name, but that seems appropriate for a young man who already has built a career in show business removed from the spotlight.
But Tanski is not just about the greasepaint and the orchestra pit. Turns out there’s also a bit of the latent Deadhead in him.
When Phish guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio needed a top-tier musician to help him learn how to play close to 100 songs for a tour with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, Tanski got the call. The two rehearsed together for weeks and then Tanski watched his work come to life as the biggest concert event of 2015 unfolded before him.
“I knew I was one of just a few people that helped him prepare for this,” he said. “That made me feel incredibly lucky and special.”
The people who have watched Tanski’s talent take him from Buffalo to Broadway and beyond would tell him he’s half right.
A local wunderkind
Tanski, 32, is accustomed to working behind the scenes. Since moving to New York City after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music education from Indiana University and earning his master’s degree in Music Education and Choral Conducting at Hofstra University, he’s contributed to several Broadway shows and has become a go-to guy for major productions, including “Beautiful.”
In June, his name moved from the small type to the big time, thanks to high praise from a rock legend.
The New Yorker ran an article that month on preparations for the “Fare The Well” tour, when the Grateful Dead and some of their friends – Anastasio and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti – would say goodbye to their fans.
Bob Weir, who founded the Dead along with the late Jerry Garcia, mentioned that Anastasio had brought on board a young keyboard player named Jeff Tanski who had written charts for 70 songs. Weir called Tanski a “wunderkind of the Broadway world.”
It may have been the first time most people had heard the name or the word used to describe him, but the people who have known him since he was a kid have always known that’s where his life was headed.
His mother, Mary Ann Tanski, said she knew her son was serious about music when “he’d come home from third grade, run into the house, take out his little Casio keyboard – we didn’t even own a piano – and start practicing immediately, without taking his coat or his backpack off.”
Though she said she worried about how he would make a living as a musician, she recalled that she knew the die was cast once Tanski was in high school.
“He was in every possible group you could be in, and he was so organized when it came to music, that it hit me that, yes, he could do this,” she said. “He is gifted, yes, but I think his greatest gift is that he has the ability to work with other people so easily, and that’s something that has been going on with him since way back. There’s no ego with Jeff. It’s just about the music.”
And when it came to music, he wanted to try it all.
“Jeff was open to so many genres of music,” said Russell Owens, who, as director of instrumental music at St. Joe’s, worked closely with Tanski through his tenure there. “I would like to think we gave him an introduction to these genres and many opportunities for his development at this stage in his musical life. He was like a sponge, ready and excited to take it all in.”
One of the groups Tanski worked with at St. Joe’s was known as Black Tie Jazz, an extracurricular supergroup that also included Michelangelo Carubba, who is now drummer with the funk-jam-soul collective Turkuaz.
“Jeff was already a professional musician when we were at St. Joe’s,” Carubba said. “Not that he was making money doing what we do now, but he was pro in his attitude and his work ethic. This drive that he had seemed innate. He just had it.”
After college, Tanski took his talents to Broadway, landing a job playing synthesizer and serving as associate conductor on “Bonnie and Clyde,” a musical that had a brief run. He followed that with another brief stint on “Jekyll and Hyde” in 2013. But 2014 brought “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” He has played keyboards and worked as associate music director on the production for more than two years.
Tanski had found a home on the Great White Way. He had no idea there was also tie-dye in his future.
The missing piece
Tanski had previously been enlisted by Anastasio to help with orchestrations for “Hands on a Hardbody,” a musical Anastasio co-wrote with actress, singer and composer Amanda Green. Originally commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse, the musical grew through several years of writing, re-writing and development, before opening in spring of 2012. “Hands on a Hardbody” ran for a short time on Broadway in 2013.
Tanski said he worked closely with Anastasio and the two found they enjoyed working together.
“The Grateful Dead thing came about because Trey mainly wanted someone to practice with,” Tanski said. “He was learning all the songs on his own, but realized that his practicing would be much more effective and fun with another person in the room. So when he asked if I wouldn’t mind learning 90 Grateful Dead songs so we could play them together, I jumped at the chance.”
Anastasio said he felt comfortable with his new collaborator almost immediately.
“The first thing I noticed about Jeff was his positive attitude, combined with his innate musicality,” Anastasio said. “Broadway shows are very tense by nature, and you run into a lot of people who will tell you why something can’t be done. Jeff doesn’t have anything near that outlook and that’s a very attractive quality in a collaborator.”
Anastasio could not overstate Tanski’s importance in preparation for what would become the biggest concert event of the summer of 2015.
“It took a long time, because as you can imagine, each song takes quite a while if you really want to learn them well, not just in a cursory way; and I wanted to really inhabit them,” Anastasio said.
Anastasio blocked out a small studio in midtown Manhattan and worked with Tanski, eventually spending close to 150 hours rehearsing. Tanski said he needed to write an accurate chord chart for each song; Anastasio thought it was unnecessary.
“As soon as we started going, I saw that he was absolutely right, and that beyond being necessary, it was actually crucial and enormously helpful,” Anastasio said.
Tanski is far too young to have experienced the Dead at anything close to its peak. He had never seen the band live. He knew the music, but only in what he described as “an academic way.” But he was there during the “Fare Thee Well” shows, watching the band say goodbye while simultaneously celebrating what it had done. Anastasio told him there was something different about a Dead show, but Tanski understood only after seeing one.
“I’ve never felt so much love and support flow from an audience to a stage,” he said. “Being there also made me feel a little more connected to an era that I didn’t grow up in. It was suddenly very clear why this band spoke to so many people and how they became a centerpiece to a generation.”
Tanski said he was filled with pride watching Anastasio play the songs they had worked on together.
Anastasio has a similar reaction to looking back on the tour:
“I can honestly say that I never would’ve been able to pull the whole thing off without Jeff.”
In music and theatrical circles, that’s becoming a popular sentiment.