Every so often we are fortunate to cross paths with somebody with that intangible spark that makes them stand out in a really good way. They bring enthusiasm to all they do, and they inspire others to reach far beyond what seems possible. I ran into such a person some years ago, and I’ve been amazed by what this young fellow has done and continues to do.
I first worked with Val Zvinyatskovsky when he was but 10-years-old. He played the role of Jojo, one of the leads in a youth production of Seussical that I was music directing. This particular group used live orchestras drawn from the greater musician community to give their young actors the privilege and thrill of performing in musicals in a way that would prepare them for potential careers in professional theater. Through the rehearsal process, this young actor stood out as one of the most skilled, prepared, and polished young thespians I’d seen. He not only had all of his lines and blocking down pat long before the cast needed to be off book, but his musical timing was impeccable. He never missed. Even so, it wasn’t until we got into the run of the show that I realized just how accomplished and curious this young man was.
He stopped me in the hallway backstage one night after a performance to ask about the various signals that I was giving to the musicians in the pit during the show. These were things with which young actors were normally completely unconcerned, yet Val was watching everything and wanted to understand what was happening on all levels. He shared that he too was a musician (which I had already surmised from his timing and command of the show’s vocals), and he’d been studying piano since age four. This meant that at age ten, if he could get his hands on the scores for the shows he was doing, he would often accompany himself at home to learn the music. This was quite a feat for one so young given show music is often extremely challenging to play, particularly from the score.
After that run, he was involved in some way with every subsequent show I worked on with that group, sometimes as a lead, sometimes in the ensemble, and sometimes on the technical side of the action helping with lighting or assistant stage managing. Several years after Seussical during one show where he was running the light board, I brought him down to the pit to talk with my keyboard players. Over the course of a few runs, we had talked a bit about his playing in the pit for a show should that opportunity arise, so I wanted him to talk with the keyboardists to be aware of the type of equipment he would need.
Later that same year, an opportunity presented itself. I was scheduled to music direct a run of Urinetown for an adult community theater in the area, and I thought this would be an excellent production for Val to get his introduction to the pit. The show called for a small, five piece pit ensemble consisting of keyboard, reeds, trombone/euphonium, bass, and percussion. The thing that made this show so perfect was that the keyboard book was a straight piano part, so there were no patch changes to navigate. Patch changes are how keyboard sounds can be changed during a performance, and programming and executing those is an art form all its own. Urinetown has a very challenging score and is often done with a piano/conductor at the helm. Given I normally performed as a reed player and my keyboard skills weren’t up to performance level, I needed a solid keyboardist for the pit.
When I asked him, thirteen-year-old Val jumped at the opportunity. This was his first time as a pit musician, and the other members of the ensemble were adults. Even so, Val’s enthusiasm and musicianship came through, and he ended up inspiring every member of the pit to much greater heights, myself included. He asked a lot of great questions along the way, and we were all there to make sure we supported him as he supported us making this one of the best pit ensembles with which I’ve worked. I was honored to have been able to mentor Val through this production as there are numerous aspects of pit work that are honed through experience. Of course the best mentoring relationships are two-way, and I think we all learned as much from Val as he did from all of us.
The last two years have been challenging for all performers, but Val hasn’t let it slow him in the least. He uses the arts as a way to connect people, and he’s comfortable both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. On his website, he lists himself as a storyteller, artist, and creator, and he is all of those things and much more.
Earlier this year, he submitted a proposal and was given the go-ahead for a new venture in which he’s stage directing, music and vocal directing, and doing the lighting design. The show is Falsettos, and it will run in March 2022.
Falsettos is being produced through the Upstage Theater, a teen run group giving high school and college age performers opportunities they may not get elsewhere. The production is gearing up for rehearsals after having been staffed, scheduled, and cast. As soon as he got approval to move forward he recruited his musicians for his instrumental ensemble. Unlike the rest of the performers, the musicians are adult professionals from around the area. After some great discussions with Val, he carefully weighed the pros and cons of different approaches and decided to go the piano/conductor route for this production leading a group of very experienced theater musicians in the process. He’s taken on a huge challenge filling so many crucial creative roles for this show, but if anybody can do it, Val can.
Falsettos will be performed on the Second Stage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, and tickets are on sale now. It’s a short run, only three performances, but it’s going to be something special to see.
Beyond his current projects, Val is working toward a career in the arts. Looking at his body of work on his resume, it’s hard to believe that he’s only 15. The arts drive him, and he sees the positive potential and beauty in artistic expression. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot about Val Zvinyatskovsky in the future, and the world is a much better place with him bringing the arts to life in so many ways.