THE FULL SCORE ON A BROADWAY COMPOSER by Donny Levit
Updated: Nov 22, 2019
Maplewood’s Russ Kaplan creates music and musicians
He’s a quadruple threat: a Broadway composer with several new projects in the works, a cabaret band leader, an accomplished jazz pianist, and a local piano teacher winning accolades from his many students.
But don’t expect Russ Kaplan to tell you that. Leave that up to his collaborators.
“I guess we’ll start out with his nickname. He became ‘the rock’ for us,” says Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the songwriter who, along with her husband Robert Lopez, wrote the anthemic “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Remember Me” from Coco.
In 2000, a quartet consisting of Kaplan, Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford and Sara Wordsworth would begin an almost 17-year journey to develop their show In Transit, which played on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre from 2016 through 2017.
As is so often the case for an artist making a life in theater, Kaplan has not followed a linear path. After firmly establishing himself as an accomplished composer and jazz pianist, he is now also a teacher who shares his talents with a growing number of students of all ages – while also feeding his creative appetite with a multitude of exciting projects.
In 2011, Kaplan and his wife, Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, decided to move to Maplewood from New York City. Spencer-Kaplan also makes her life in theater, as the executive director of The Acting Company. “We felt a little out of place at first here without a kid,” Kaplan recalls. “But I’m definitely glad I got used to homeownership for a whole year before having to juggle all those things at once.”
The out-of-place part would soon change. Their daughter, Emilia, is now a first grader at Clinton Elementary School and has already gotten a head start on her thespian career – as a theater camp student at the YMCA last summer. And the 7-year-old has big plans to collaborate with her dad on a stage adaptation of the children’s book series called The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. “Well, here’s the thing,” says Emilia when asked about the project. “We’ve already come up with a few scenes.”
Let’s call the Kaplans a nuclear theater family.
Kaplan, who grew up in Potomac, Maryland, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in drama with a directing concentration from Carnegie Mellon University. In addition, he completed a minor in jazz piano. After graduation, he promptly moved to New York City.
“At first, I stayed with my uncle in Ozone Park for a few months and then finally found an apartment in Bensonhurst that was cheap enough,” Kaplan recalls. During his first two years living in the city, he hopscotched from borough to borough, living in five different apartments.
While his living situation may have been a bit frenetic, Kaplan was slowly carving out a career and embedding himself into the theater scene. He joined New Dramatists, which Kaplan describes as “the ultimate playwright’s resource, although not everybody who enters there is an aspiring playwright. I had my eyes on directing.”
Perhaps his most serendipitous experience took place when he auditioned for an a cappella group called “Bob Ross Juice Box” – a company that included future friends and colleagues Anderson-Lopez, Ford and Wordsworth. The group served as a jumping off point for In Transit, the show that grew out of their a cappella shows. And Kaplan would start honing his skills as a songwriter and composer.
“I wasn’t writing at the time,” he recalls. “Mostly anything I had done in college or up until then was interpretive – directing or playing other people’s music. But writing was never really something I was feeling a compulsion for.” (Needless to say, that would change soon enough.)
In Transit, the first a cappella show ever to play on Broadway, became the quintessential example of a collaborative theatrical experience. And Kaplan’s vast musical knowledge would leave an indelible mark on his collaborators and the way in which they continue to create.
“(Russ) is such a jazz cat. I love, love, love jazz, but he knows so much jazz and he has it in his fingers...he has it in his bones,” says Anderson-Lopez. “I have the Ella Fitzgerald and the standards, but he’s got an inner Dave Brubeck that he could bring into the soup of our collaboration that I like. And he’s also really wonderful with grooves. When you’re working with a cappella, grooves are sort of a repetitive pattern that you can hold on to, that can take you from one place to the next, which works with our subway metaphor.”
The a cappella group was also the beginning of a long-term collaborative relationship between Kaplan and Wordsworth, an accomplished musical theater lyricist, librettist, and writer. Her credits include large-scale stage adaptations for Disney, including Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, as well as both Frozen Jr. and Frozen Kids – which are geared towards young performers.
Kaplan and Wordsworth are working on a stage adaptation called The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Musical. The duo has previously written High School Confidential, Dear Albert Einstein, and an in-development production of the Dory Fantasmagory series, which will be directed by Maplewood resident Michelle Tattenbaum. Kaplan, says Wordsworth, is “like my brother. We really have a close relationship that influences the way we’re able to get along as collaborators. It’s been such a joy to be able to create something with someone that I’m used to creating with, because we just have a shorthand. We have a way of working. We have our systems in place.” Luckily, local audiences will be able to see their newest venture, which will be playing December 3 and 4 in Red Bank (see details below).
In addition to teaching at both Performers Theatre Workshop and In Tune in Maplewood, Kaplan tutors students of all ages. Sasha Sinkler, a junior at Columbia High School, has been taking lessons from Kaplan for about a year. “I took a music theory class [in high school] last year, so I would ask him questions about that,” says Sinkler. “He’s warm and friendly, and I like hearing about all of the cool projects he’s working on.”
Dave Powell is a musician, composer, and media-producer who studied music composition with Kaplan for roughly two years. “It was a great hands-on professionally-oriented experience," Powell recalls. “I’d play him something I wrote, and he’d give feedback and critique – and like any good teacher, he introduced me to new music that greatly impacted my taste.”
Susan Hyon, a South Orange resident who has been studying with Kaplan since early 2018, concurs. “He is the perfect teacher for me because he meets me where I am. And he has a vast knowledge of music theory and application. I really like listening to him talk about different pieces and composers, and because of our conversations, I find that I listen to music differently,” she says. “It is satisfying to have someone who has a deep love for music and who can spread that love by his sheer passion and knowledge."
In 2017, Kaplan created an impressive series called Russ Kaplan’s Broadway Jazz Session, an evening of Broadway classics and other songs performed by a bevy of talented singers and backed by a band of accomplished musicians. “I just tried to start thinking of a way that I could bring my theater stuff and my band together in interesting ways to start this concert series,” he says.
Kaplan has collaborated on the project with area professionals such as Shayna Steele, Christiane Noll, and West Orange resident James Snyder, one of the stars of In Transit and now performing as Harry Potter on Broadway. “He’s just putting huge amounts of work into creating [the jazz sessions], and they will only exist once in time,” says Anderson-Lopez. “And when I look at that, I think he’s really doing it for the joy of art, and the joy of playing, and the joy of creating something from nothing that will never exist again. And I really encourage anyone to go to these shows because they are one of a kind. They are the real deal. I think they’re kind of like what you would have witnessed in the '60s.”
While Kaplan enjoys composing on his piano at home in his quiet sunroom, he can often be found getting work done at the Able Baker, Cedar Ridge Cafe, or True Salvage Cafe. Although when he’s out and about, it’s a pretty common occurrence for him to bump into students and colleagues throughout town. “I feel connected to this community,” he says. “I see students – or just people I know – everywhere I go. It’s one thing I love about living in Maplewood.”
Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock ’n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his show Under the Influence on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Twitter @donnyreports and Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio.
Performances of The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Musical will take place at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank December 3 and 4. Ticket information and performance times are available at thebasie.org/events/elf-on-the-shelf. All other tour dates are available at elfontheshelfmusical.com. You can follow Kaplan’s upcoming projects and performances at russkaplanmusic.com.