Celebrating Chicago's Michael McBride: Award-winning Musical Director

Fri. July 3, 2020 8:31 AM by Ross Forman

michael mcbride

photo credit // provided
Michael McBride was at home one night last month in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, sitting on his couch with his dogs and clenching his husband's hand.

They were watching the Jeff Award show which, due to the coronavirus pandemic, was a virtual event streaming live on YouTube. The Jeff Awards, for more than 50 years, celebrates Chicago-area theatre.

“This year is an unusual one for the theatre community since we are pausing our productions and events,” said McBride, 39. “In the past, the Jeff Award event has been like a traditional red carpet award's ceremony. Even though the announcement was virtual, the ceremony was expertly hosted by Parker Guidry. They created hysterical bits and glamorous costume changes throughout the evening that kept me laughing.”

McBride's resume is music-filled. He is an adjunct facultymember at Loyola University Chicago's Department of Fine and Performing Arts, an adjunct faculty member at North Park University's School of Music, Art, and Theatre, the resident music director at Timber Lake Playhouse, and also music director at A Church 4 Me MCC.

His hook into the Jeff Awards was as the music director for BoHo Theatre's production of Big Fish, which ran from Sept. 29to Nov. 17, 2019, at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park. 

McBride and his husband, Rodrigo, learned that night he was a Jeff Award-winner.

“This award brought me back to one of the best theatre experiences of my life with the BoHo Theatre company half a year ago. Over a period of several months, these beautiful people exhibited immense talent, graciousness, passion, intelligence, and kindness. Also during the day of the event, I was honestly a nervous wreck—mentally rehearsing emotional reactions to every possible outcome. Apparently living like that is exhausting,” he said. “This was my first time working on a production that was eligible for a Jeff Award. Having music directed for 10 years in a university setting, I feel like a relative newcomer to the wider Chicago theatre scene. As I've made steps further into music directing, I've felt affirmed that this is a work that inflames my passions and aligns with my skill set. Receiving this award is an external acknowledgment of an internal journey.

“For some of my friends who are newer to the theatre scene, including my husband, I've had to educate them that the Jeff Awards are the equivalent to Broadway's Tony Awards. If I still get a blank stare, I say it's like an Oscar for theatre in Chicago.”

McBride's Jeff Award celebration was, well, so 2020 – done via Zoom before the announcement, and then group texts while the winners were announced.

It was a big night for Big Fish, as it produced the second-most awarded theatre company with 5 awards, including Best Production of a Musical, Best Director (Stephen Schellhardt), Best Music Direction (McBride), and Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actor (for both Kyrie Anderson and Jeff Pierpoint).

“Being new to the scene, I wasn't sure how it all worked,” to win a Jeff, McBride admitted. “But I knew I was very proud of the work we did and it deserved to be recognized, especially since, on the opening night attended by the initial Jeff judges, there was a malfunction with the band's lighting that left us in complete darkness for the last quarter of the show. Even though we couldn't see our instruments, let alone our sheet music, and had only been playing the score together for a week, the band pulled together and continued playing from memory. I have to credit my musicians for their massive skill and investment in this show.”

So what's next for McBride? He's not sure, as he's already had six upcoming productions postponed or cancelled. However, he said, he's had time to write a musical with Sandra Delgado that is slated to premiere next April. The upcoming production takes place in Boystown in 1988, based on the true story of a group of gay and lesbian activists who partner with a set of nuns to lobby the Chicago city council to enact the Human Rights Ordinance that prohibits employment and housing discrimination based on sexuality.

“I'm so grateful for all those who have loved and supported me and this production,” McBride said. “In just a couple days in March of 2020, the majority of my friends lost their jobs and their outlet for personal expression in the shutdown since live theatre is, by nature, a communal activity. However long the economic recovery takes, the theatre and music community will likely be the last to go back to work. Many of the performance venues we've called home may not exist by that time. 

“On the flip side, while the world has been sheltering in place, they have been turning to music, streaming films, TV, etc. to maintain sanity. I would request that we all remember the artists who got us through this strange time and search for ways to support. While this is going on, the arts world is undergoing a transformational reckoning, as our eyes are opening to the way we've been pushing aside artists and stories that embrace the fullness of all humanity. When we return, I'm interested in using whatever platform I have to show that the best art has always been seeking new stories and perspectives. This is an opportunity to deconstruct and rebuild a more vibrant and inclusive world of theatre.”