Interview: Historian Margaret Hall talks about her new book on Paul Gemignani

Paul Gemignani. For almost 50 years, the famous musical director has occupied the orchestra pits of hundreds of productions around the world. As a close associate of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, Gemignani was present for some of the most important and groundbreaking shows in Broadway history. And while we know a lot about his collaborators, Gemignani’s story has never been properly told until now.

Over the past two years, musical theater teacher and historian Margaret Hall has worked closely with Paul Gemignani to bring a thoughtful account of his life and career to readers. Hall has established herself as an authority on musical theater by offering crash courses in musical theater, and she has contributed to several publications, including OnStageBlog and TheaterMania.

Hall told us about the experience of writing her first book and the lessons she hopes readers will take away from it.

Marguerite room
(image courtesy of Margaret Hall)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me how this project was born.
It all started, for me at least, on May 5, 2020. I received a phone call from a woman named Jennifer Ashley Tepper. She told me she wanted permission to give my details to Lonny Price, who would then give them to Paul Gemignani. I told him they could contact me but I didn’t know what it was. She explained to me that Lonny had been haranguing Paul about writing his memoir since the 90s, and that Paul had put it off. But then came the onset of the pandemic, and Lonny told Paul, “You officially only have time.”

When Jen told me that, I thought she wanted me to talk to Paul about why I, a 22 year old who was about to get a BFA, would want to know his story. I thought I was approached as a potential reader. So Paul emailed me, and basically asked me why I thought this book should exist. Aside from a recent book that came out, there hasn’t been a meaningful biography or autobiography of a musical executive since 1971. Much has changed for musical directors and American musical comedy over the past 50 last years. I explained this to him and he said, “Great, I’ll call you on Monday and we’ll get started.” At first I didn’t really know what that meant, but after an hour or two of dissecting emails, I realized he wanted me to write it!

What was your typical daily process for gathering and compiling information?
We talked every day for about six months. I got up, had my breakfast, then edited what I had written the night before. Around 2:30 p.m., I had a phone call with Paul that lasted about two hours. We went through things in chronological order, although we skipped because we both tend to go off on tangents. After the phone call with Paul was over, I was going through my notes and transcribing things. And then I would pretty much lock myself in the attic and write from 6 p.m. to about 2 a.m. And then sleep, repeat. It was such a fulfilling time in my life because it felt like every atom in my body was working towards a goal.

You interviewed a lot of people for this book, including many Broadway legends. Can you talk about this experience?
When I started working on the book, Paul said to me, “Here are the contact details of everyone I’ve worked with. Go for it. It was really throwing me into the bottom of the pool. But at the same time, he was sort of my lifeline. The experience was breathtaking and confusing. As for how I did it, I just cold called people and cold emailed. I said, “I’m calling on behalf of Paul Gemignani. Can I tell you about X, Y, Z stuff?” And people were pretty receptive. It really warms my heart because it says a lot about their relationship with Paul. If they had Paul’s approval, I had theirs too. They trusted me and that meant so much because they didn’t know anything about me. They were very supportive and many of them actually taught me how to do interviews through my interviews with them.

(image courtesy of Margaret Hall)

Besides telling Paul’s story, what were your other goals with the book?
I wrote this book with a very specific reader in mind at all times: a 12-year-old girl from Wisconsin who knows she loves her group class, but she doesn’t think she wants to be in a symphony when it grows up. She loves music, but she doesn’t know where there is a place for her. And I want this to be the book that the librarian can pick up and say, “Read this.”

If there is one thing you would like readers to take away from Paul, what would it be?
Your heart knows where to go. You can make sense of something all you want, but your instincts will tell you the truth. This has guided Paul throughout his career. And part of what I think makes him so special is that he refused to put money or status ahead of his own heart and his own loyalty to those he loved and the shape of his life. art he loved.

What future projects are you working on?
I currently have four things in the works. I can’t really give you details on three of them. But I can tell you that one of them is a book about Stephen Sondheim killers. I’m very lucky to have the bandwidth to talk a lot about a show that’s so close to my heart.

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