You may not see him, but you better believe you can hear Michael Raabe, somewhere in the mix, at nearly every freeFall Theater show.
Raabe has been musical director at St. Petersburg’s creative hothouse since 2011, when he was invited in to arrange Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, the first freeFall show to be produced in its current, Central Avenue location.
He has also been an integral part of the creative team behind each production in the “drive-in” series that began last October. He arranged all the vocal music, played piano and led the band through his arrangements of the musique du jour.
Up to and including the current show, Leonard Bernstein’s New York. The two-person musical’s parking-lot production continues through May 9.
Bernstein followed Scott & Patti: Get a Real Job!, A Christmas Carol in Concert and War of the Worlds.
“Each of the shows have been very different from one another,” Raabe says. “With Bernstein, we wanted to do something a little more traditional Broadway. This is an entity that people know coming in; people know Bernstein. And this specific revue is both a love letter to his music, a brilliant composer, and it’s also a love letter to New York.”
Raabe arrived in the bay area in 1999, to begin a long-running gig as a musician, singer, actor and yes, dancer in Busch Gardens’ stage productions. In time he graduated to music-directing and even writing shows for the theme park.
Back home in Watertown, South Dakota, Raabe was theatrically-inclined from the start. “It’s very cliché,” he remembers, “but I was one of those kids who would put on shows in the back yard. I would get my classmates to rehearse at recess, and we would get out of math that day because we had a show to put on.”
He saw his first touring Broadway musical in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
But Raabe was never going to be “just” a Broadway kind of guy. He recalls being blown away by the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire!, with Dennis Quaid as piano-pounding rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer Jerry Lee Lewis.
“It’s not a very good movie,” Raabe laughs, “but I’m like, ‘I want to play like that.’ I had a lovely piano teacher that realized right away that this was going to be a non-traditional student. So I would have to practice my classical stuff, but at my first recital I played and sang ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ And the ‘Part of Your World’ reprise from The Little Mermaid.”
His parents were country music fans, while Michael preferred Sinatra, Torme and the Andrews Sisters. During high school, he worked as a “lounge lizard” (his phrase), ticking the ivories and crooning, “I was always attracted to music that my age group wasn’t attached to,” he explains.
He studied vocal performance at the University of South Dakota; during summer break, he performed in stage shows at a theme park in Minneapolis.
Which led to Florida, and Busch Gardens, and working as a freelance for theater companies on both sides of the bay. He also co-wrote and produced cabaret shows with local singer/actors including Becca McCoy and Sara DelBeato.
“My advice to people is: Do good work, and work with as many people as you can,” he explains. “It’s all word-of-mouth. That’s half the business, doing good collaborations with people. Be a good collaborator.”
Raabe’s track record of innovative collaborations with freeFall artistic director Eric Davis is perhaps the richest in the area. Since 2011, if it’s been a musical (including many “out of the box,” non-traditional musicals, their specialty), it’s got both their fingerprints all over it.
“He hires people that he trusts because they’re going to bring their A game to it,” Raabe says of Davis, freeFall’s co-founder. “It’s grown, it’s been amazing. We’ve written stuff together.
“He brings a musical sense to stuff he directs – the poetry and the lyricism that he brings naturally. Working with him, there’s no ego. It’s like, ‘What’s best for the storytelling?’ That’s the way he is with actors as well. It’s a very safe space, and a good exploratory space. It’s a process, figuring out the story together.”
Because he’s worked as an actor, Raabe feels he understands them. And because freeFall, and Eric Davis, foster and encourage collaboration, the musical director thinks he has the best seat in the house – his piano bench.
“You understand you’re a part of the whole piece of storytelling,” he says. “And that’s what I love about it. I’m bringing my expertise of the musical aspect, but by the same token I’m collaborating with those singers and musicians.
“You don’t micromanage, you help bring everybody together. I have my point of view of what I want the music to be like, but also my guitarist, or a percussionist might have something to say … an actor might have a very specific point of view that they want to bring to the songs. It’s being open to that.”