Iowa State alumnus shares what it’s like to work on Broadway

McDonald during a rehearsal in San Jose.

Sierra Hoeger

Broadway life, before it came to a screeching halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t as glamorous as it seems. As with any profession, there’s two sides to the coin, and unless one is truly looking from the outside in, they’re in for a reality check. 

Adam McDonald, Iowa State alumnus, has been involved in many productions and held various roles since graduating from Iowa State. From starting in the keyboard one position and moving up to the music director/conductor position over the course of eight years on the show “Wicked,” McDonald has experienced both the good and the bad that comes with a traveling Broadway tour. 

“Not that anybody’s job is harder or easier than [mine], but our job is a job that requires us to be at peak performance, it’s like surgery in a way,” McDonald said. “The pressures are very different, but equally pressurized. It’s wonderful, but it is hard and challenging because you have to learn to live on the road. People see the costumes and people see the lights, and I think a lot of people see their dream in that. They see the glitz and the glamour. And of course, the lights come off, the costumes come off and we go to our hotel rooms 365 days a year. Yes, it has tremendous pros, but like life, it has its cons.”

From “Wicked” to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” McDonald, along with fellow performers and those involved with Broadway, is learning how to take a forced break after the industry came to a close in March and early April. 

Throughout quarantine, McDonald has started to teach freelance music lessons, with topics ranging from music history to piano progressions.

“To be able to virtually connect to anybody who would like help in any facet of music has been a really great opportunity because it has forced me to learn new technologies; it allows me to connect to students and people in artistic ways in a time when that is so desperately needed,” McDonald said. 

He is also working with the Boston Public Library and a team of individuals to compile music and create compositions ahead of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage to increase awareness and remembrance of the movement. 

“The piece turned into half-arranging, half-original compositions,” McDonald said. “And that has been a really magnificent project to be a part of. Essentially, I’m the only boy on the creative staff. To be trusted to continue this fight for women is something I believe in every day, but to incorporate art is a wonderful thing, and just to be a little drop in the bucket of history, of this movement, is a proud moment for me because it just feels like the right thing to do. And the people I’ve met through that is remarkable.” 

McDonald conducted research on compositions from the Library of Congress and has noted how groundbreaking and beneficial it has been working with individuals who identify as non-binary and as women, on a project where he is the only male. 

Pre-starting his adventure at Iowa State, McDonald was set to be an engineering major. Then, a moment parallel to Joseph’s within the play “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” — whom McDonald was playing during the time — helped McDonald realize he would much rather pursue theater. 

A moment in which the lead character, Joseph, realizes a path he’s meant to be on during the song “Close Every Door” led McDonald to rethink the path he’d rather be on as well. The same day, McDonald watched a performance of Elton John and Tim Rice’s play “Aida,” further exploring the thought of wanting to pursue theater and performing arts rather than engineering as a potential career. 

Not wanting to pursue acting but instead the music side of performing arts, McDonald was in a predicament. The last time he had taken music lessons he was 12. However, after being reassured by William David, former Iowa State music professor, that previous music background wouldn’t be a major concern and that he had connections within the Broadway industry, McDonald was again reminded of the path he was on. 

“It was just that universe thing again,” McDonald said. “If this is my path, then I guess I’m going to stay here with this man who knows about the industry that I love so much and that I might want to do.”

McDonald credits his most influential mentors to be David, Professor James Rodde and Arlene Jutting. 

David encouraged McDonald to have fun and experiment within the world of performing arts, making McDonald feel as though he could express himself freely. 

“I was just starting in that actual journey when I showed up [at Iowa State], and I did not have technique and I did not have a clue,” McDonald said.  “And so the big one was that he allowed me to have fun in the exploration of music and that first and foremost until the end is how I lead with what I try to teach in music and how I get people to appreciate music.”

It was accompanying choirs under the direction of Rodde that allowed McDonald to understand and gain experience in the collaborative aspects of music and be part of a team that emphasized the importance of the “team” aspect and not individual statuses. 

The late Arlene Jutting was the organist at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Ames, allowing McDonald to pursue a leadership role at the church as music director while also enrolled in classes. Jutting was described by McDonald as an “unsung hero of music.” 

“I was just so immersed in this school, that isn’t known for music, in incredible music,” McDonald said. “The choral department is amazing. I just happened to land there and pick music, and these people sort of swept me under their wing and really encouraged me to fly.”

After Iowa State, McDonald pursued his master’s degree at the Boston Conservatory, a performing arts college. McDonald saw this as getting him one step closer to dreams of New York and performing in renowned shows nationwide. 

Since his schooling days, McDonald has been involved with countless shows; although some are “flashier” than others, it’s the smaller scale productions McDonald has grown to love. 

“Those ones were passion projects,” McDonald said. “It’s rare that those are the ones in our industry that make money or tour. It’s sort of out of those unexpected, ‘yes’ moments come these really fun things.”

So often, McDonald pointed out, those within the performing arts industry are tied between pursuing passion projects or paying the bills. Fortunately, McDonald has been able to manage both. 

When it comes to performing, McDonald’s favorite memories include those moments when familiar faces are in the audience. 

“My favorite memories were always those that involved the people I loved the most being at the show, watching me perform it for them,” McDonald said. “Sharing in the love of that with the people I care about in the moment was always my favorite memory — whenever I’d conduct the show and my mom would be watching, anytime I had family and friends sitting in the pit next to me as I’d play.”

While Broadway has yet to return to in-person shows and actors have yet to return to work, McDonald ensures performing arts fans there are still ways to support your favorite shows and actors during these times where the industry is at a standstill. 

“Find a local art gallery you can support,” McDonald said. “Find local musicians or far musicians that you’ve always appreciated. Especially in these times, where you are able to reach out and support the arts, little bits go a long way.”

When it comes to his journey — in which he hasn’t met his final destination yet — McDonald reflects on his opportunities thus far.

“To be the tiniest part in bringing joy to so many people through a talent that I didn’t ask for but I did work hard in and try to obviously put toward the use of this goal of sharing it, that was my favorite memory — sharing it with people,” McDonald said. “By default, every show was my favorite memory. The travel. The incredible, world-class musicians that not only I was allowed to meet but to play with for almost a decade. What a dream. What a cool opportunity.”