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A Creative Maestro: Mark Brymer Talks Show Production and Choral Arranging
Episode 913th December 2023 • Creative Innovators with Gigi Johnson • Maremel Institute
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I'm joined by the multitalented Mark Brymer, a creative entrepreneur with hands-on expertise in turning musical concepts into spectacular shows.  Mark brings a wealth of experience — from arranging a vast collection (400,000) of choral pieces with Hal Leonard to producing dazzling shows in theme parks. We’ll get a deeper look at his journey from high school passion to creating WOW! Entertainment and its creative team. Alongside his success, Mark's story is one of adaptation, learning, and consistent building. 

Guest: Mark Brymer, President, Wow! Entertainment

Working in New York City, Los Angeles, and Dallas, turnkey producer Mark Brymer has carved out a singular profile as the man who can arrange almost anything in entertainment. In his successful, decades-long career, the music producer, theatrical producer, author, arranger, orchestrator, and composer has stayed relevant and kept busy in the ever-shifting entertainment industry by seeing change as an opportunity for growth.

Most recently, when Six Flags Entertainment Corporation became interested in the explosion of immersive/in-person experiences, they called Mark. Now, he’s premiering bringing the captivating Halloween experience, Dr. H.H. Holmes' FREAKSHOW at the Six Flags Over Texas theme park. Mark’s groundbreaking Dr. H.H. Holmes' FREAKSHOW promises to raise the bar for theme park theatrical productions by employing Broadway talent in the production.

Over the years, Mark has parlayed his gifts as a musical arranger and composer into a vastly varied career in the entertainment industry. He is a global trailblazer in both the children’s music education and entertainment industries with such clients as McGraw-Hill, Disney, Warner Bros., Hal Leonard, Music Theater International, and Rhino Records. Mark co-wrote and produced the title song, “Digga Digga Dog,” for Disney Film Studios’ 102 Dalmatians, starring Glen Close. He’s written and produced over 150 live production musical shows for Six Flags theme parks. In addition, he’s written, produced, and mixed scores for the dinner/arena attractions Pirate’s Voyage and Dolly Parton’s Stampede. Since 1995, Mark has headed up the full-service music and live theatrical show production company, WOW! Entertainment, Inc.

The through line in Mark’s diversely-accomplished career is his passion for family-oriented entertainment. It’s a path he stumbled upon after discovering as a college piano major that he loved arranging, and he embraced the full spectrum of arranging and performing opportunities that came his way. Eventually, Mark landed a gig playing piano at theme parks, and this led to a myriad of opportunities in the theme park theatrical space. To steady his income while working in the mercurial world of theme park productions, Mark made inroads in the choral market. He became an exclusive staff choral arranger for Hal Leonard in 1983.

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We had the pleasure of having people from all over the place,

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and I'm glad to be catching Mark

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in Texas. But, Mark, you said you have

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offices and or you have creative spaces in two other

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places. Yes. My creative team, I mainly

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draw from New York City, and I

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will usually meet up there in Ken Billington's office.

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He has a wonderful office right in the theater district. And

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then I also do all my recording in Los Angeles.

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Typically there's East West,

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United, there's some various studios on Sunset Boulevard. They're just

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classic, great studios that I record.

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So I love United space. That's just such a great space.

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It really is. It's just wonderful. And these

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are just classic studios that Frank Sinatra recorded it in, the

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Mamas and Papas. All sorts of vintage great

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TV themes were done there. And

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I want to work with the best people on all my projects,

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and that's where I can find them and record them. So we're

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finding you in the realm of what current adventures, Mark, what

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are you currently up to? Well, I've just

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opened three different Christmas shows out

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at Six Flags over Texas in Arlington,

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Texas, and that's ending my

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journey this year. I've actually produced and

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written ten different shows for that theme

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park this year, so it's been quite a

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busy year. I also have a couple of shows

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running down at Six Flags Fiesta Texas,

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long-running Majesty of Christmas and Looney

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Tunes Christmas. And then, of course, I've got

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Christmas shows running in Branson and

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Pigeon Forge and Myrtle beach with

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Dolly Parton's both her stampede and pirates voyage

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shows. So a lot of people probably have been to your

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shows, didn't know they were your shows, and thought, I wonder how

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in the world this happens. I think, is

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that a little bit that they go through it or they wonder?

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Yeah, well, hopefully they want both.

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They go to. And really what it's about

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is if I can help produce a wonderful time for them and their

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family, hopefully enjoying the show, then I've done

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my job. I grew up in Southern

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California, so for me, a similar metaphor was

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I worked at Disneyland for a couple of years. So much

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creative production. I was instead a ride operator, not

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a fabulous performer there, but

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people see that as such of the background of their

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lives. I'm really excited about talking about how you've

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ended up in this and the many other things that you've done

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now. Where did you grow up? Did you grow up in Texas?

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No. Both my parents are native Texans, so

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I grew up more in St. Louis, Missouri,

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but we spent a lot of time in Texas.

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What got me down here, there was a great music school on

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North Texas unt up in Denton. And that

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got me to this area. And I started getting

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work immediately. And I've stayed here,

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actually, my first job was with Six Flags in

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what they called Six Flags Mid America at the time. I think it's just called

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Six Flags St. Louis now. But that was one of my

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first work experiences, and really in

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entertainment was I got a job with the

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crew on one of the shows. And then I was

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a piano accompanist for two of the different shows.

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And did their audition tour and a couple of different things. So that just

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kept growing, which gave. Me back you up even further.

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So growing up then in St. Louis, were your

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parents creative? Were they performers? Were

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they. My dad was not, but my

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mom actually taught speech and

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drama. And so growing up,

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my sister and I would always. Right after school,

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we would go to play rehearsal and our musical

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rehearsal. And I watched a lot of rehearsals

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as a kid. And I feel that that

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is in me. It's registered ever since. And so a

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lot of things, I think, come naturally to me, or

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it makes sense. But really, I think I've just always been around

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theater production for my whole life. And had parents that were

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supportive because some people have the journey story that

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they love being creative. But mom and Dad said, you must be an engineer,

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you must be a lawyer, you must be a. And didn't get the creative

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journey. Yeah, I did have that a little bit because I'm sure

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my parents were, well, how are you going to make a living? But they were

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very supportive with piano lessons, and I had

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a great high school experience. There was a lot of. I could take music

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theory in high school.

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So I got a great training ground,

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and I started really getting

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work as a pianist, really, when I was still

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in high school. So my parents couldn't say a lot because I was

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actually making money.

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It wasn't just a hobby. It wasn't a hobby. So I did major in

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music in college, and I switched around

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a couple of different ways. Once I discovered

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writing and arranging, I thought, well, this is something I can spend long

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periods of time doing. And that's what became my focus. That's what got

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me down to unt to study

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and led to my career. And

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that's continuing to be a bit rare for kids to realize

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that they can compose or even have music theory in high

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school. That oftentimes that's not even part of the mix, which is

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one of my big bugaboos with all the wonderful things that happen

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in high school music. But oftentimes that they both skip

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theory and they skip learning how to write in their own voice and their own

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music. Yeah. And it was just a

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good time. It was before there were so many stringent

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core educational demands. And

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so, yeah, I took music theory and jazz theory. There

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was a great orchestra in my high school that I got

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to do some piano solos with. I also learned

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cello. So, yeah, it was just a

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well rounded education with high school. And then I

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took two sets of private lessons. One was classical

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piano, one was jazz piano. So

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I just had a great training ground. And that definitely gave me

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a head start on, before you ended

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up at. The theme park world, what did you

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think you were going to do with it? I didn't know for sure.

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I knew that music came very

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quickly to me and it's something I really

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enjoyed. And so,

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I don't know, I kept pursuing it. I really didn't even discover writing and

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arranging until I was in college.

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But once I did, because I was

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advanced enough with piano

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that my teacher said, you need to spend four to 5 hours a day

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practicing or you're really not going to get much better because you're at

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this level. And that was very hard for me. But then once

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I started arranging and writing out arrangements, I thought,

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oh, I could do this four, six, 8 hours a day. That would

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not bother me. And so I just went after it.

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I knew what level I had to work at.

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And then certainly transferring to UNT,

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really, I was with some phenomenal students there

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from around the world. And that gave me the

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incentive and the drive to be as excellent

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as I could be. So how did you end up,

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you mentioned earlier that you ended up then doing

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heading into the theme park world. How did that step happen?

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Well, what happened was

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at the first college, I went three years to a Milliken

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university, that's a small private school in the middle of Illinois.

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And I made a deal with four

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great singers there. I said, look, I'll do all the

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arranging if you all agree to rehearse. And we did

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our own program, and

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we were our own little group, and we performed at Homecoming and different

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events. And then we did a recital at the

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end of the year that I taped that

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audio and presented it

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to the VP head producer at

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Six Flags to say, hey, look, I've been writing and arranging, and

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I want you to hear this. And the timing was good. As I

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transferred down to Denton,

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they had an opening at the Six Flags over Texas show

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for the music director and to write those. It was

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a Southern palace show and a smaller saloon show. And they

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offered that opportunity to me, really, during

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my senior year of college. Oh, wow. And

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then the following year it expanded to four

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or five parks and it just

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expanded quickly. That's a big journey coming

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right out of college. It was, in many

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ways it was hard because I was younger and like, who's this

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kid? And there were some challenges to it,

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but you've got to take

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opportunities when they arise. So I got

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some great training at UNT

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quickly and just kind

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of embraced it and kept getting opportunities.

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At the same time. I felt, well, the theme park business is so fluky.

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You have a lot of work one year and then they'll run the same shows

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over the second year and you're sitting hyperseasonal too.

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Right. So a big chunk of their life is the holidays

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and summer. Yeah.

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I got involved with educational

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publishing. So what that is, is coral arranging for

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print publishing. And I work with a company called Hal

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Leonard Print Publishers. They're the world's largest publisher out of

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Milwaukee. And I started getting opportunities to arrange for

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them and I've done that ever since.

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And you don't make a ton of money on one arrangement,

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but it's like developing your catalog. I

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now have like about 3600 choral products in print

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and available and sell probably

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around half a million copies of music a year around the world.

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Wow. Steady

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income, I was going to say they're almost evergreen. I mean, I'm assuming that some

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pop because there's popular songs going on, but it's really

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having in this world of non evergreen music, an

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Evergreen catalog. Oh, most definitely.

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And it's interesting. My best selling

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choral is Bohemian Rhapsody

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that I actually arranged, I think, in

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1996 when it came out in Wayne's World

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at first. And it has continued. I think I'm

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well over 400,000 copies. I mean, it just sells 20 or

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30,000 copies a year.

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There are some definitely evergreen titles and that's what you, as an

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arranger, you look for and if you can freshen them.

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Hal Leonard is have I have access to all

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the. So I mean, that's

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tremendous. Every title except anything from

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Warner Brothers. It's EMI

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jobit, Sony. It's a

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tremendous amount of music I have access

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to, to arrange. Wow.

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So that is just a lovely part of each

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year or that's something that blossomed and you're letting kind of

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mature while you do other adventures. I continue

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to do about 15 to 20 arrangements a year. So

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you keep supplying the catalog and

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it'll vary depending on. This year will probably be a little bit less

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because I had so much writing to do

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with Six Flags. But then next year I'll bump back up

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and then teachers know

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what I do and they hopefully look for my name or dealers

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do. And I'm very conscious of things like voice

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leading, and I want my arrangements

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to make the choir sound great.

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And if it doesn't, that's my fault.

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I know what voice leading is, but our audience may not all know what voice

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leading is. So I just. Composition class last week

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where they're trying to explain voice leading to a bunch of students, I was kind

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of laughing. Voice leading, how would you. Well, yeah,

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voice leading is. It makes it

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easier for singers to sing. Okay, so

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instead of having a part. Da.

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That'S harder to sing, but.

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You. Make it as melodic as you can, the harmony

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parts. So you're still trying to achieve great harmonies,

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but make it as singable as possible.

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The poor altos and tenors aren't stranded someplace and

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cursing you out in the middle of rehearsal. Well,

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poor Altos, they're the ones who kind of always get that

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fourth extra note. But you count on them being

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great musicians. Throw them a

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melody every so often. Absolutely.

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So you have a lovely

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interweaving of adventures for a lot of our

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guests. They kind of bounce and you've threaded, I mean, in many

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ways, you've got a beautiful long run of

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doing sort of iterative adventures

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that have continued. How long have you

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been with Hal Leonard now? Well.

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Almost 40 years. Yeah.

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That's such a long relationship in this space.

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Yeah, it is. And a lot of times

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I tell young people

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is the importance of being helpful to everybody

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along the way. Because years ago

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I just started arranging for Hal Leonard and

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I had one of my instructors say, oh, I've got this grad student

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and he needs some extra work. And I think he's

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really excellent. And so I brought him on. He

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helped fill in some score. That's back when we still worked in pencil.

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And he helped fill in some scores and taught some vocals for me

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at my theme park shows.

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And then today he is actually the president

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of Hal Leonard and has been for ten years.

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Yeah. Got a gentleman named Larry Morton.

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You never know people you help out along the way, what

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their careers will do. And there have been times that's been

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helpful that Larry and I go way back and he

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know, come time for a meAn, that's a helpful thing to

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have given work to

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the company president. So how

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has your work expanded and changed in this time. So

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you commented. It used to have to do, of course,

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pencil and staffline.

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So you're now living in

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Sibelius, actually, finale.

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Finale Software finale. Yeah, they're a

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competitor, but the publishers or the typesetters prefer

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finale. I've been on finale

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since 1996 97 and

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haven't stopped. So you

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get very fast at that.

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But I think for me, in my career, what's

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expanded is I think back there

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was a time I was just doing creating music soundtracks

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for theatrical shows or theme park shows,

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and in Warner Brothers

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bought the Six Flags parks. And at

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that time they said, well, we only want to deal with

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turnkey producers, outside show producers.

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So they disbanded the internal Six Flag show production

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group I worked for. And I

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thought, well, gosh, what am I going to do? And I thought, well, maybe I

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should become independent turnkey producer.

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Let me start my own company. Yeah. So I thought,

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well, but it was kind of because I wanted to keep

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working. And you just be like, okay, I'll figure it out, I'll figure it

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out. And so sure enough, I got an opportunity to produce one

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show the following summer. And then that really

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took off. That's when I formed WOW

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Entertainment, and that's launched me into the show production

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business. And so that really changed

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the orientation of my business at

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that point. So you have

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gone from being an employee to sole

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proprietor to now having full time and part time staff

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to make all of these things happen. You started out telling us how many different

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shows you launched this year.

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Yes, that's exactly right. I have some full

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time and then some part time. I have a network

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of creative vendors from costumers, lighting

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designers, musicians

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that I hire as needed. So it operates a lot like an

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advertising agency. You bulk up when you've got the accounts.

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When you lose an account, you hunker

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down.

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It's very similar to that. So there isn't a lot of

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elements of running a business. You've got to be aware of the bottom

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line and projections, what kind of

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money you need to keep going. And you've had to pick up new skills.

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Right. So you were doing theater, more full

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theater, and then you went into piano and music

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composition, but now are putting on whole shows.

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So what other hats did you have to learn to put on?

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And what might have been some tripwires you might have tripped on as you

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were learning to build even more capacity?

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There have been a lot working with

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contracts and understanding contracts and what they

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really mean and certain clauses

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and things you need to ask for

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accounting. Certainly you

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not only want to project what your income is going to be on a

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project, but then you have to keep accounting along the

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way to make sure that you met your

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projection.

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Those are boring things, but you got to do

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it to stay in business, because a lot of times the shows I

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produce, a particular park or

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facility will say, tell us we want this show. Yes,

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tell us what it's going to cost. And then that's the money you're

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under contract to do to deliver this show for that amount

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of money. And so if you don't do your job correctly, you

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don't make that amount of money.

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But that's okay. My dad was an accountant, and

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I've had good friends who've gotten MBAs that I kind of help. So

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I got around it enough that I was

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able to figure those things out and

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then just experience having done this

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so long and worked. I've written probably over

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150 theme park shows and

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multiple larger dinner arena attractions,

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and not only produce music, but also produce those

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shows that you learn along the way that

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it's like you've kind of, oh, I've been through this before, or I ran into

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this. So

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it's a craft in what you're developing. And the more

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you do it, the more you develop your. You

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know, I worked with a gentleman named Ken Billington on my lighting

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design, and Ken's a Tony Award winner. He's lit

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Chicago and was most

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recently, New York. New York, that was on Broadway.

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And he know at his point in the career, he

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said, there's nothing really you can throw me that I haven't seen.

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So all sorts of things, like, we were working on a Halloween show, and I

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said, well, what about if we made the floor red? That would be great. And

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he goes, oh, no, it lights horribly. He's actually done.

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He's lived that dream. He knows that surprise. Yeah,

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it sounds great, but no, that's not going to work. So it's like,

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okay, you listen to the guy and learn

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from that. Has the technology of what you're expected to do changed? I

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think, of consumers and people coming who are

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used to looking at, let's say, dancing with the Stars and seeing the video

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floor. Or are people expecting different things

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because the tech of everything's changed? Most

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definitely with not only how

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I write music, but how we produce it.

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Combination of synthesized instruments

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along with live instruments.

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Now we're in a final tech

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week or for production of a show. We have

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time code. The one time

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code runs the music, but it also runs the video,

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runs, lighting cues. So

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it's very technical,

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but it also enables you to do pretty amazing

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things visually.

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You get used to it. You learn along the way. And I've always

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taken a philosophy of hiring the best people possible,

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working with the best people around me, versus

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a lot of times people can hire their friends or I've

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worked with so and so, but I've been a little more

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ruthless in that of just, no, I've got to work with the best

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people because that's a reflection on.

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It's. It's paid off. It's been successful to work that way. And

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we started out, we talked about the fact you're in Los Angeles and New York

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and in Texas, but you come to record in LA,

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so what parts of all of that now fit together? You're

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recording the pre recorded elements for your shows, or you have

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a whole other line of fabulousness that you've got going on.

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Well, what I do, I actually lived in Los Angeles for

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about five years, but went through the

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Northridge earthquake. Great time to be in LA. I

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know, and the Rodney King riots. And I

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think when I left was when OJ Simpson was going down

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the highway. It was time to go. He's going to run the Bronco

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I got to get out of. Yeah, so.

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But I did learn so much about the

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entertainment business and the importance

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of networking and how

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to Shamus and all these things.

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And then I always found how the musicians were just

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so incredible and the singers were so incredible, and

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the best people accumulate

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in. So what I did

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was I ended up moving back to Dallas,

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which was much more affordable to run an office. And

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I had just picked up a producing job with Six Flags over

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Texas, so it made sense. I was right in their backyard, but

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I continued to go to LA. And what's

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happening now, technology wise, is that

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we'll have pre production on track. So a lot of times I'm doing

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a demo that it's with electronics and maybe the vocals.

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We're building the show, trying it out, and then I'll

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take those sessions, those layouts, and then

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I bring those to and, you know, now it's on a hard

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drive, and then you record real

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instruments and real vocals on top of that.

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Then I will bring it back to

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Dallas where I'll have it mixed and we

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tweak it and fine tune it here. Now,

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sometimes with technology, it's been

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nice. I've been doing this for the last ten or 15 years, where

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if I'm too busy, I might just send my audio engineer out to

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LA. And then we work with a combination

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of programs that I can actually sit at my desk in Dallas

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and produce a recording session with the engineer

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in. So that's, that's been a real

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time saver and money.

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So I have those options that I can do that.

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And really now so many voiceovers and things

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work that way all around the world. In fact, some of them

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spurred by the pandemic, by a lot of people having voiceover

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studios, not just in their closets, but

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expected to have them in their homes and to be

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very much so. It's changed the whole. Well, that

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and Netflix wanting translations of so many

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shows that there's so many little micro recording studios

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and people doing voiceover work here in LA. So interesting times. Yeah.

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Oh, yes, it is. It know, particularly you see that all over

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in a, isn't that there's a realtor

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that just focuses on homes with studios, I think

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in Los Angeles. Yeah. Houses that

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rock or something like that. I don't know. I like that. Yeah.

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So do we leave any adventures out? We've covered lots of things with you.

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What have we not mentioned of your adventures? Well,

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one of the fun aspects of my adventure has been the

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opportunity to work with Dolly Parton

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because she has a series of these dinner

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arena attractions in Pigeon Forge.

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So it's the Dolly Parton Stampede and the

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Dolly Parton's Pirates Voyage. So

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I've worked off and on with that company and many know

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Dolly will write a new song. So I

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get an opportunity to work with her in the recording studio, which has just

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been a tremendous, you know,

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she has a home in LA, so. Well, I'll record her in

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and that works out. So that's

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been a big thrill.

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And then I would say the other kind of exciting thing I've gotten

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to do was I actually co wrote the title

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song for Disney's 102 Dalmatian starring Glenn

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Close. Wonderful. I really

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haven't had that much chance to work with Disney shows, but my

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first opportunity, believe it or not, was the word went out in

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LA that Disney was looking for a dog song.

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Open this movie. And a lot of people were submitting, but I

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knew somebody who knew the publisher, and she and I co wrote

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a song and it followed it all the way through and it

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was going to be the end title and they moved it, the opening title credit.

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And my first entry into Disney was like

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driving right onto the film production know and

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interfacing with them. And so that was a real thrill in my

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career and I haven't worked with Disney since, so

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it was a little OD chapter, but one I'm very thankful

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for. Very cool. What do you see heading

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mean? You're in a business that is robust

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in a changing music world where you've got

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great relationships. Is this an

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expanding space? Are you going to get into these immersive

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performance spaces, or is this just sort of a

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happy, wonderful level of life?

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Well, I would say

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this year has been tremendous and kind of really helped Kick start

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me back into show production

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and turnkey producing, and I really, really enjoy it.

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And I love the team that I've assembled to help me. So I'm really

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hoping to exploit that even more.

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There's a merger happening between Six Flags and Cedar

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Fair that should go into place in the 1 March. And so they're going to

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combine have 27 parks. So

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I'm making a lot of efforts to reach out to them. And

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I think things really, until the merger happens, it's hard for anybody

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to commit. But I'm real excited about that opportunity,

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and it's hard right now

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on. I was looking at one time of trying to look at

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writing a Broadway show and getting mounting that. But

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Broadway is so backed up with so many great properties just looking

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to get into the city that I'm seeing

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now an opportunity of large

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production shows, but not on Broadway. You're looking for other venues

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for them around the country

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to produce for. And then what I'm trying to do with my

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creative team is access the creative talent out of New York,

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because it doesn't get any better for live show

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production than the creative talent you have in New York. And just using

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that, so kind of having a Broadway experience producing,

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but looking beyond the Theater district of New

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York City. That sounds fabulous. No, everything has been upside

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down from the pandemic. And then some of the realignment wasn't just coming

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back. It's like having clogged in the arteries now where everyone's

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wanting to do things and the economics have changed so gigantically

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and people are wanting to put all the postponed shows

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and projects out. So it's an interesting time. Yeah,

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it really is. So we are nearly at the

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end of our adventure here. Okay. What have we not talked about

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that you want to make sure we talk about?

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Well, I would just say this,

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what we haven't really talked about, but is a key

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to my focus and what I want to do is that

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I'm really trying to bring joy and entertainment to people.

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And as a producer,

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as I mount a show, I will sit there like I kind of usually get

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a seat on the side of theater and just look at the audience and try

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to read the audience as much as I can, and

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that's my job, is to bring them joy.

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If I mentioned with singing in a choir is if I have a

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successful choral arrangement and the kids sound

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great, then all the parents think that's the greatest teacher,

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and the kids feel positive about themselves and performing

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music. So ultimately,

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that's my focus. That's what's most important to me,

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is bringing joy and entertainment to as many

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people as I can. And hopefully that great arrangement also makes someone

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go, gosh, this was a great experience. Maybe I'd like to go into singing or

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music when I grow up. This has been exactly positive part of my

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life. Exactly.

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That's like the subconscious or really what I'm working

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to do all the time. Bringing joy through all sorts

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of. You probably touch more people through your music

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than most other people in the music space

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because so much of your work is getting licensed into schools

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and out to people on a regular, joyful basis.

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And I spend a lot of time on YouTube, and

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because it's now with pal Leonard, my music is

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reaching around the world. And like a Christmas suite,

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which was more of a concert work that I had written, I listened

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to or looked at a production

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or being performed in South Africa

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or in Japan or Southeast

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Asia or Germany. It's just fascinating

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to see performances of your music in all parts of the

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world. It's a cool thing. It's a

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cool thing. Mark, if someone who would you like to

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reach out to you and how would you like them to reach out?

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Well, I think probably the easiest way.

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On my website, we mentioned just an

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email called Info

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info@wowentertainment.net.

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That's W-O-W Entertainment. Net.

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And that's the best way to reach out to me. All those come directly to

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my email. And I mean, it could be

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somebody who has a venue, who

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maybe wants to do a production. I have

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tremendous catalogs of shows that I could offer

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to them. And let's talk, let's get creative and see how

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we can work together. Certainly performers

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or people. Right now I'm really looking at a lot of

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specialty acts, people that trying to bring that into a

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musical theater setting with story.

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Anybody who feels inclined, if you've heard this and you want to reach out

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to me, I'm more than happy to get

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back with you, and I will. I read

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every email that comes to me and that's the great way to reach me. Very

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cool. Mark, thank you very much for joining us. And I'm looking

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forward to somewhere in this Christmas season we're doing this

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right now in December 2023, of hearing your

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music somewhere in all of these different adventures. Well,

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thank you so much, Gigi. I really appreciate it. Excellent.

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You.