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Michael Hake, veteran Buffalo music director, dies at 52

April 25, 1963, to Dec. 3, 2015

Michael Hake provided the beat and the backbone for hundreds of musical theater productions, concerts and events during his long career. And Wednesday night was no different, as he performed in MusicalFare Theatre’s production of “Pageant.” But it was his last performance as one of the busiest and most sought-after Buffalo music directors, arrangers and accompanists in the last 40 years.

Hake died Thursday morning after suffering a heart attack the night before, according to his sister, Ginny Hake Mainus. He was 52.

Hake was known in equal measure for his pinpoint accuracy at the piano and his acerbic wit. He served as music director for more than 250 productions at more than a dozen Western New York theater companies, including his own, Cadenza Productions. He was also the longtime music director for the Eclectic Improv Company and the Artvoice Artie Awards, which honored him with its Career Achievement Award in June.

“He could make a piano sound like a full orchestra because he played with such passion,” said Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, who worked with Hake on more than 100 shows over four decades at the University at Buffalo, the Buffalo theater scene and at Artpark. “It’s a huge loss for the Buffalo theater community, the Buffalo music community and for the many people who counted themselves as his colleagues and friends.”

Randall Kramer, who first hired Hake in 1991, remembered him as a musician with sky-high standards and an uncommon level of commitment to his craft.

“He was the unquestioned master of rock ’n’ roll shows, without a doubt,” Kramer said. “Nobody could do what he could do vocally with a cast, and nobody could do what he could do with instruments when it came to rock and roll.”

Hake was born in Buffalo on April 25, 1963 and spent his first several years in foster care. He was adopted at the age of 7 by George and Dorothy Hake of Elma. He attended Iroquois High School and graduated from SUNY Fredonia in 1987. His mother, Dorothy Hake, said that as a teenager she offered to pay for flying lessons, a family hobby, but he opted for a new trombone instead.

Hake had a reputation as a master sight-reader with a natural feel for the demands of musical theater. He was also known for his ability to swoop in and save the day at the last moment. When Tony-winning performer Bernadette Peters’ accompanist wasn’t able to play with her at Kleinhans Music Hall, Hake stepped in at the last moment to rave reviews.

After being hospitalized during the run of the New Phoenix Theatre’s production of “Sweet Street: A Leonard Cohen Musical” in 2011, Hake returned to the production with the use of only one hand.

“I asked him if he was worried about it,” New Phoenix Artistic Director Richard Lambert recalled. “He said to me, ‘No. Remember, I play better with one hand than most people do with two.’”

For several years, Hake performed Monday nights at Q, the Allen Street bar where he was a fixture, in an event dubbed “Hakeoke.” He’d lug his music books into the bar, pile them on a table and set up at the piano to accompany anyone who wanted to sing a show-tune. Lackluster performances were accompanied not only with music, but with Hake’s dramatic facial expressions and eye-rolls, which he also employed to great effect in his performances with the Eclectic Improv troupe and in MusicalFare’s current production of “Pageant.”

Don Gervasi of Electic Improv echoed the comments of many of Hake’s colleagues and admirers about his effect on the people he worked with.

“When Michael became involved, he raised the bar much higher than we had ever anticipated,” Gervasi said. “There’s not a performer or a theater or an entity such as ours that has not been affected in some way by Michael Hake.”

MusicalFare marketing and production coordinator Doug Weyand, a friend of Hake’s for more than 30 years, described him as “the most brilliant madman of a musician and music director I’ve ever worked with.

“He could be cantankerous as all hell, but it was always coming from a place of love of the art, love of the person he was working with and wanting them to do their best.”

In addition to his sister, Hake is survived by his parents, George and Dorothy Hake of Elma. The theater community will gather at 7 p.m. Thursday in MusicalFare Theatre, which has canceled the evening’s performance “Pageant” for a toast to his life and contributions. Services are being planned.

–Colin Dabkowski

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