Clarence-bred Cirque musician anchors himself in New York - The Buffalo News

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Clarence-bred Cirque musician anchors himself in New York

NEW YORK — Seth Stachowski hunches to duck a low rafter, turn a sharp corner and settle into a gray swivel chair.

“It’s a tight squeeze in here,” he said, slipping a set of fat black headphones over his nearly bald head. There’s not a trace of apology in his voice; he’s proud of this closet-sized pocket beneath the stage at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre.

Stachowski is walled in: To his left is a pair of computers loaded with musical cues. To his right are a banjo, electric guitar and the professional grade German-made saxophone he bought during his senior year at Clarence High School. In front of him sit a set of keyboards and stands stacked with penciled and highlighted sheet music. Wires twisted like Twizzlers snake along the floor.

Behind him is a black curtain; Stachowski is wearing a shirt to match. He needs to look as nondescript as possible for the overhead camera that will catch his every beat and sway as he conducts the eight-player band for Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway musical “Paramour.”

The cast of Cirque du Soleil's "Paramour." (Photo: Richard Termine)

To most, this place would be cramped and claustrophobic. For Stachowski, who has a constant churn of melodies and arrangements flying through his brain, this place is his creative cockpit.

For now.

Stachowski, 39, is an 11-year veteran of Cirque du Soleil. He’s toured North America with the Canadian-based entertainment company, which is known for its acrobatic circus shows, working as a player, director and composer. Stachowski ascended to the rank of musical director for “Paramour,” which opened one year ago in New York.

The musical, which is Cirque’s first, tells the love-triangle story of woman longing for fame as an entertainer, a has-been director vying to once again reach the top of Hollywood, and a young man looking to establish himself as a songwriter.

Reviews for “Paramour” were mixed at best, but business was steady. Stachowski, who works on a show-to-show contract with Cirque, was hoping to settle in New York.

He’s lived long-term with Cirque in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and had lengthy tour stops in cities around the continent. But ever since leaving Buffalo in 2006 to “join the circus,” as Stachowski puts it, he’s never been anchored.

That is a musician's life; till now, he's been OK with it. But Stachowski and wife Katrina have a 7-year-old son, Henry, who was born on a Cirque tour in San Diego, and was only two weeks old when the Stachowskis drove up the coast to Portland for Cirque’s next stop.

“He’s an adventurer from the very beginning,” Stachowski said. But now Henry is in first grade. He’s settled into a school, making friends, and feels at home amongst the parks, museums and subways of the city. Henry's grandparents are just a quick flight away, too; he spends many of his school breaks in Buffalo.

On one trip, Seth had to get back to New York quickly for a show, so he flew with Henry to Buffalo, met his parents outside the gate, simultaneously said hello and goodbye, then headed back through security. He grabbed a quick beer at the airport Anchor Bar, took the next JetBlue flight back to New York, and soon enough was in the Lyric Theatre pit.

It's still a whirlwind existence, but one that gives Henry a sense of home. That nearness to normalcy, combined with the obvious professional benefits of being a Broadway music director, are two of the reasons why Stachowski planned to stay with "Paramour" for as long as possible.

“It’s an open run, as far as I know,” Stachowski said in September, chatting in the pit during the intermission of a Sunday matinee. “As long as they’ll allow me to keep performing here, I’m going to stay.”

Then Harry Potter flew on in.

Seth Stachowski plays the banjo as he leads an eight-person band beneath the stage of Cirque Du Soleil's Broadway show Paramour at the Lyric Theatre. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

* * *

Broadway was not part of the plan.

“Did I ever envision this? Not really,” Stachowski said on a recent afternoon inside his two-room brick-walled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Henry was playing a xylophone and zooming a toy subway train around the kitchen and living room, which are separated by a small table where Seth composes music.

“I never set out to be a Broadway music director,” said Stachowski, whose parents were teachers. “I remember thinking when I was younger it would be really interesting and cool to do that job, but it was never a goal."

“I kind of did, in a certain way,” said Katrina, with a soft laugh. She was sitting across from her husband as they snacked on cheese and crackers. “I saw his talent and his capacity for music. I’d never seen anyone like Seth before.”

In May 2001, when they were dating, Seth and Katrina took a trip to New York City. They bought tickets to the musical “Rent,” where the primary musician is positioned onstage. Katrina remembers saying to Seth, “See that guy up there playing the piano? I can see you doing this.”

Seth Stachowski, with his wife Katrina and their son, Henry, 7. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

As his wife reminds him of the story 16 years later, Stachowski says drily, “Oh, so this has been your plan all along? Now I know!”

He cracked a smile. “She’s got a very long-term view that I’m not aware of.”

“I just had this vision of him being able to do anything he wanted to do,” Katrina said.

Back then, Katrina and Seth came from starkly different places in life. He was a young, single guy who left SUNY Fredonia College when he realized he wanted to play music rather than teach it.

Katrina, who is now 46, was then the young mother of two daughters: Sara, who today is 26, and Marley, who turns 22 this month. Katrina had a teaching degree and a passion for fitness. She met her future husband in 2000 when they were both working at the former Buffalo Athletic Club. They married in 2002, and Katrina got a full-time teaching job in the West Seneca schools.

Seth, meanwhile, kept playing and writing. As a kid playing music in the Clarence schools, he developed a knack for quickly learning different instruments. As a young man, he put that talent to good use. He found work directing and performing for local theater, DJ’ing electronic music at downtown clubs, and playing weddings, dances, jazz gigs and for a salsa-merengue band. He did some freelance film work, and also finished his degree at the University at Buffalo.

But he wanted something bigger. In 2006, with the help of friends at the Buffalo production company Full Circle Studios, Stachowski shot a video that showcased his playing and writing ability. He sent it off to Cirque, and after an audition in New York City, was offered a job on a then-new show called “Kouza.”

The gig would require Seth to move to Montreal in November 2006. Katrina, who in the middle of a school year, would need to stay behind.

Katrina told her husband to go.

“It was a no-brainer,” she said.

This, Katrina knew, is what it would take for Seth to realize those dreams he held, and make real the visions she had for him.

“He goes off to Cirque,” she said.

Seth added: “I ran away to the circus.”

* * *

Seth and Katrina lived apart for more than two years as he toured North America. In early 2009, she moved from Buffalo to Atlanta, where Seth was on a lengthy tour stop, and they’ve lived together since. Katrina describes it as “an unconventional life,” moving from city to city, and jetting back to Buffalo for her daughters’ high school musicals, proms and graduations.

That life became more conventional one year ago. The Stachowskis moved to New York, found Henry a good school, and what they hoped might be a long-term job for Seth. Katrina, meanwhile, started working on Broadway too: She’s a part-time costume assistant for “Aladdin.”

As musical director of “Paramour,” Stachowski became the boss of a group of veteran Broadway musicians. He earned their respect quickly. Violinist Paul Woodiel, a 25-year-veteran of Broadway, calls his boss “an ironman,” “a workaholic” (which, in show biz, is a term of endearment), and “a really modest guy who is only interested in the music.”

“There isn’t another Seth in all of New York City,” Woodiel said on a recent afternoon in the Lyric Theatre pit. He was sitting in the string section, adjacent to a human-size tube – called “the toaster” – that catapults actors to the stage above.

“If Seth needs to be out, we absolutely have to have at least two guys to come in and replace him,” Woodiel said, nodding to Stachowski’s section of the musicians’ quarters, where his keyboards, sax, guitar and banjo were at the ready. “He’s a real original.”

Seth Stachowski gives a cue to the drummer as he leads an eight-member band beneath the stage of Cirque Du Soleil's Broadway show, "Paramour." (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Now, Stachowski is marketing that originality unexpectedly soon. In late fall, the “Paramour” cast and crew learned the show would be closing early. The Ambassador Theater Group, which owns the Lyric Theatre, were hungry to convince the producers of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” to stage the surefire-smash show there. The Lyric, which the New York Times described as “cavernous,” is a natural for Potter — it’s one of the few Broadway venues roomy enough to allow for the broomstick-flying wizardly theatrics.

Though Cirque spent $25 million to launch “Paramour,” AGT gave the company good reason to move the show out and take it elsewhere (which likely won’t be Broadway).

“They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Cirque executive Scott Zeiger told the Times. “They have some plans for the venue, and they incentivized us to go.”

“Paramour” closed on Easter, which meant as of April 17, Stachowski is out of a job.

He’s been here before. In 2011, Stachowski began work in Los Angeles on a Cirque show called “Iris” that was expected to run for a decade. Instead, it lasted 16 months, and closed with only a few weeks of notice.

That, Stachowski said, “was shocking and very difficult to process. Since then we have learned a lot, and we have adapted to the ebb and flow of life in the entertainment business… It’s not the end of the world like some might think!”

Among performers in New York, Stachowski said, he’s found “a real sense of fellowship, and they support one another in a different way than we experienced in Los Angeles. It’s been very reassuring.”

To that point, people like the violinist Woodiel have been actively introducing Stachowski to other New York musicians.

“We’re happy to have him in town,” Woodiel said. “I think he’s going to do well.”

In the meantime, Stachowski is planning to focus on Reality Tune LLC, a publishing company he started in 2013 to provide custom music for television. He’s also planning to volunteer at Henry’s school and chaperone some field trips  — something his former six-day Broadway workweek didn’t allow.

He’s also writing some music with Henry. In the apartment, Stachowski opens his laptop and hits play on a buoyant tune with Henry’s reverbing “do-do-dooos” bouncing off the circus-like tune.

Henry, who is rolling his subway around the floor and playing a harmonica, stops to listen. He’s smiling.

“That’s our little creative collaboration,” said his dad.

Stachowski was proud of that prime pit space in the shadows of Broadway. But he’s even prouder of this music. And not even Harry Potter can get in the way.

Seth Stachowski

Why you know him: If you've seen a Cirque du Soleil production in the last decade, there's a good chance you've listened to Stachowski's work. Since 2006, he's been a musical director, composer and player for the Canadian-based circus-entertainment company.

Career: Stachowski is the music director for Cirque du Soleil's Broadway show "Paramour," which closes this weekend after a yearlong run. He joined Cirque in 2006 and has worked on shows including "Kooza" (music director, player, writer of additional music), "Zarkana" (player), "Iris" (music director, player) and "One Night for One Drop" (composer).

He has also written music for individual performers, circus acts, film and television. His company Reality Tune LLC provides custom music to television companies that produce shows including "Pawn Stars" and "Counting Cars."

Age: 39

Residence: New York City

Family: Married to Katrina Stachowski. Together they have a 7-year-old son, Henry. Stachowski is stepfather to Katrina's daughters Sara, 26, who is graduating from SUNY Brockport with her master's degree, and Marley, 22, who is finishing her undergraduate work at SUNY Buffalo State.

WNY Roots: Stachowski  is a 1995 graduate of Clarence High School. He attended SUNY Fredonia and later finished his degree in 2006 at the University at Buffalo. He grew up in Clarence and was raised by his father, Paul Stachowski, who taught math and English in Pembroke, and his stepmother Claudia Stachowski, who was a speech therapist in the Clarence schools and now has a private practice. Paul recently published a science fiction novel, Not Even Light

Stachowski on his musical mind: “I can sit and do the same thing, play an instrument for hours – the repetitiveness – and I’m completely fine with that. I think I definitely have a non-traditional wiring. It’s made me a musician.”

Broadway violinist Paul Woodiel on Stachowski: "I imagine him growing up in Buffalo with all that lake effect snow or whatever and just holing himself up in his room and practicing. He’s clearly, I would say, an autodidact. He learns from everything he sees and hears and he’s constantly listening to music, but nobody can teach you to do all the things he does."

Brenda Vongova, president of the United Nations Chamber Music Society, which performed Stachowski's Cirque arrangements for a 9/11 concert last fall: "He’s not Russian style, where you do it by scaring people. (Note: Vongova is a Russian-trained pianist.) His style is very nurturing. He’s very supportive and nurturing and also at the same time, directive … I love Seth. I want to work with him forever!"

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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