By Aimsel Ponti
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND — Musician and native Mainer Emma Stanley is living her dream, one that dates back to her childhood. She is on tour with the 50th anniversary production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” playing trumpet and keys in the show’s 11-person orchestra. The opening night was in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 8, Stanley’s 32nd birthday.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” was released in 1970 as a rock opera concept album. The double album with a thick brown cover, white lettering and a big, gold symbol of two angels bowing toward one another is as iconic as it gets and was a staple of my parents’ record collection. I ended up swiping it from them, and it’s by far my favorite musical because of the strength of the story and songs. I was giddy when speaking with Stanley from Los Angeles during her week-long run of shows at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. It was all I could do not to lift some lyrics from the show and sing, “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happening?”
Turns out, Stanley is as big a fan of the show as I am. Her brother, Tyler, who is a decade older and a longtime member of the band Sly-Chi, had the album in high school, and Emma would dance to it in the living room. “We would sit around, and we would all sing. ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ is a family favorite. I grew up listening to it and loving it, and I can’t believe all the connections I have with the show,” she said.
Stanley, who is from Lamoine Corner, went to Mount Desert Island High School, where the sports teams – including her basketball squad – used to run onto the field to the musical’s “Superstar,” with its huge, crashing crescendos. “I grew up watching my brother play the trumpet to ‘Superstar,’ and it’s this crazy, powerful thing,” she said. “To be able to be part of this, I still get welled up in the show everyday.”
Stanley started playing piano when she was four years old and found her way to the trumpet at seven after picking up her brother’s during a moment of boredom. Her sister, Maggie, taught her how to play a scale, and from there, Stanley started learning songs. She’s been playing both instruments ever since.
In 2009, she graduated from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where she studied classical trumpet and, soon after, landed a yearlong gig playing in the production orchestra for the Royal Caribbean Cruise line. After that, she toured the country with productions of “Spamalot,” in two stints for a total of more than three years and some 650 shows, and “Annie,” in a yearlong gig.
Stanley said that networking was a key to breaking into that world; a trumpet player she met on a cruise ship pointed her toward a contact for “Spamalot.” Her most recent stint with “Spamalot” ended in May, and she had to scramble to submit a resume for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” having learned about it when auditions were already in process. After she got the offer, she spent a month rehearsing in New Jersey before the orchestra joined the cast and crew for tech rehearsals in Syracuse, New York.
Unlike Stanley’s previous gigs, in this one, she’s represented by a union, the American Federation of Musicians, and with that comes several perks, including better pay and less road weariness.
“All of the touring I’ve ever done was nonunion one-nighters, like 15 cities in 16 days on the bus all day, everyday,” said Stanley.
This time around, the shows are in major cities and run for a week, and the cast and crew flies everywhere. Although “Spamalot” was a great gig, Stanley said, she feels like she’s on vacation playing in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“I have time to go out and explore, go hiking and actually experience where I am, and because I’ve done this so much, I’ve got friends all over the country,” she said.
Stanley is also forging several new friendships with her fellow cast and crew members. “We all have each other’s backs, and we’re in this together, and there’s no egos in the cast at all,” she said. “Everyone is just as grateful to be here as I am, just so honored to be part of such an amazing product, and the band is super tight. We really get along well, we hang out all the time.”
Stanley does miss her family and friends back home, and as a longtime member of The Fogcutters big band, she’s disappointed that she won’t be home for their annual Christmas show. She will be around, however, for the 10th annual (and final) Stevie Wonder Tribute Night with Kenya Hall and Friends on Dec. 28, a show she’s been a part of for several years.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs through the end of August, and although it won’t be coming to Maine, you can venture to Connecticut or Rhode Island next year to see it.
As for Stanley, everything’s all right yes, everything’s fine. “Getting to do what I love and get paid for it is pretty incredible,” she said.