A 33-member jazz/pops orchestra based in New York City, The 8-Bit Big Band dedicates itself to celebrating and performing musical themes from beloved video games such as the Super Mario and Zelda series, Final Fantasy, Ganbare Goemon, and more. After a successful show at the Berklee Performance Center in October 2019, they return on March 1st to perform VGM’s greatest hits in a multimedia concert spectacular. Led by their creator Charlie Rosen and featuring saxophonists extraordinaire Grace Kelly and Leo P, it’ll be a fun-filled night fit for the whole family. Get your tickets for this can’t-miss event HERE!
The man behind the 8-Bit Big Band, Charlie Rosen, is truly a master of his craft. He’s the orchestra and musical director behind a plethora of Broadway shows, most recently the theatre-kid cult sensation Be More Chill. He’s played an incredible variety of instruments in numerous pit bands. In the past few months he’s provided the music direction for Titus Burgess’ Sondheim tribute concert at Carnegie Hall and worked on the score for an upcoming Billy Crystal film. Though he never intended to work in musical theatre, he is a renowned arranger & musician who frequently collaborates with some of the biggest names in the Broadway industry. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of chatting with Rosen, who told me about the importance of communication as an arranger and the unique way he completed four semesters at Berklee.
You’ve had these incredible experiences on Broadway, at Carnegie Hall, and film scoring in LA - what have they taught you?
I learned completely different life and industry lessons from every single one of those things. Some were hard to learn and some were fun. The process of Be More Chill, Carnegie Hall, creating the film score - they’re all really unique challenges, so it’s hard to find one thing.
Initially you were a bass player, but now you play 70 instruments! Where did that journey start?
I always say that bass is my main instrument because it’s the instrument I spent the most money learning how to play, but I started on piano when I was really, really young and played cello as well. My mom’s a woodwind doubler and my dad is an organ, banjo, and guitar player, so I took flute lessons, learned sax, and started getting more into guitar because of them. In high school I thought I would go to Berklee as a drummer, and I switched to bass my senior year; then I started getting into brass and have been collecting brass instruments since then.
The reason I try to learn as many instruments as possible is because if you’re going to be a career arranger or orchestrator, someone who interacts and expects product from instrumentalists of all types and genres, it brings a fluency of communication. It’s a kind of experience you can only get from asking a ton of questions or learning the instrument. The more you know, the faster you’re going to be when you’re writing for it. You’ll know what works, what sounds good and why, where things sound good, and how to communicate your needs and wants faster. For expediency, cleanliness, and idiomatic sake - the more you know about these instruments, the better off you’ll be.
What inspired you to find your way onto Broadway?
It was totally by accident, one hundred percent. I had no idea I was going to end up there. When I was in high school I worked on 13: The Musical, by Jason Robert Brown, in LA. I’d never done any theatre - there was a program at my high school that I wasn’t involved in, because I was playing jazz in the band and stuff. But the gimmick of the show is that it’s a teenage cast with a six-person teenage band. So I moved to LA to do that, and then it moved to New York for Broadway and I moved with it. That’s basically how I got into theatre. Then the next year I did a show called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which also had an onstage band, and within a year I had done two Broadway shows by these young composers. So that was a solid foot in the door for theatre. Then I started playing more in bands with these up-and-coming theatre writers and offering to do their charts and arrangements, and that just sort of snowballed until here we are, ten years later.
What’s it been like to work with these theatre legends?
They all feel a little different. Some of them feel like my friends; some of them I’m like “whatever you say - your instinct is so spot-on.” One of those people is Marc Shaiman. I’m orchestrating a Broadway show for him, and he’s such a legend with a finely tuned instinct when it comes to scoring anything...I still sort of fangirl over him, because he just knows everything. Other people like Joe Iconis are geniuses and great, great writers, but we’re closer in age and have similar lives, so it feels like he’s also a friend as well as a Broadway composer.
From the time you spent at Berklee, what did you learn that helped you most in the real world?
Okay, I was super lucky. The way that I went to Berklee was not very linear - I moved to New York and worked, then I went to Berklee for a semester. I went back and forth like that for four years, but I only put in four semesters. So I kind of got to treat it like a vocational school, and the good news about that was that I was able to work and realize “Oh, shit - I need to learn x, y, and z to succeed. I have to go do that.”
The thing that I made sure to do at Berklee was to take all the kinds of classes that I knew were unique to that situation of students and teachers - subjects I knew I was not going to be able to expose myself to in an academic way later. I made sure to take as many genres of music ensembles as I possibly could...to learn from teachers about as far and wide of a scope as I could get, from technical skills to arranging things. I took all the classes for the non-instrumentalist on all these different instruments, which were really helpful. I took South Indian Rhythmic Solfege - I don’t know if they still offer that, but I hope so. It's an amazing class. I studied all the different ways to make music that I knew I couldn’t just take a class on in New York, like Afro-Carribean percussion, a really-high level class on Pro Tools, or big band arranging.
I knew I needed to learn as many music-making skills as I could in order to stay competitive. And that’s just for me - I’m not a guy who could ever just focus on sitting in a room and practicing for six hours a day. I did practice a lot, but that’s just not who I am. If I wanted to be successful in the business today, it was clear to me that I needed to vary my skill set as much as possible. And there’s so many resources and people at Berklee that are just around and ready to do stuff. I made my first big band EP at Berklee and it’s actually on Spotify. You have to just do as much as you can in that environment - it’s a lot harder to do when you’re not in a college situation.
If you could go back to when you started music, what advice would you give yourself?
When I was a kid, I used to practice a lot. I didn’t want to practice, and I’m really glad my parents made me practice, but I would advise myself as I was learning not to worry about practicing as hard as I can practice, and to find the joy in playing. Then in middle school and high school, when all my friends were doing it too, I wanted to practice so I could be better and hang out with my friends. So I guess the advice is to make sure that you don’t forget in your practice why you like doing this in the first place.
What advice would you give for people aspiring to play in the pit on Broadway?
The way pits are going nowadays, unfortunately, they’re getting smaller and smaller. So the more things you can offer to the pit the better; depending on your instrument, maybe that’s being able to double on stuff. And like I was saying before, even if you’re a violin player you have to be familiar with all kinds of different grooves and styles. You have to be able to function as a legit player in a jazz setting - maybe not improvising necessarily, but being able to phrase like a jazz musician and handle swing 8th notes, or really syncopated 16th notes if you’re playing in a pop score. The more versatile you can be on your instrument, the more likely it is that you’re gonna get a call to be in a pit. If you’re a drummer, learn how to use your SPD electronics and all that. Learn as many different styles and grooves as you can. Because people talk about Broadway like it’s a genre of music, when in reality it’s actually a delivery vehicle for every type of music that’s being dramatized. So you just have to know as much as you can about what your instrument can do.
How do you #getinthegroove?
I guess the goal is just to continue to find the things and directions in your career that can truly make you happy, and yet still challenge you to push yourself musically. I do a lot of stuff for other people, but I’ve found that to maintain and push myself in my career, it has to come from me. You have to find whatever your own specific brand of music-making is, and you have to show people that you can do it. They’re not going seek you out, so you have to figure out what your thing is and be able to show others so that they can then think of you as the person to bring their stuff to life. So the way to find your groove as a professional is to continually output music that you create and that you love first, so that others will want to bring that into their careers.
Rosen also recommended a new show to me, which I wanted to share with my fellow theatre fans: A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson’s autobiographical musical about existing as a black, queer man in New York. Rosen orchestrated the cast album, which he called “truly fearless” and “really special.” Listen to it on Spotify HERE, follow Rosen HERE, and check out his most recent Broadway project, Be More Chill, HERE.