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Backstage Pass: The piano man

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  • | 5:00 a.m. January 13, 2010
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Jim Prosser may not be the star of the show, but he often spends more time on stage than the actors cast in leading roles.

Florida Studio Theatre’s resident pianist for 16 years, Prosser is the man who sets the tempo for the theater’s cabaret productions and children’s shows. Fans of FST’s Improv Troupe will recognize Prosser’s comic, off-the-cuff nursery rhymes performed at the start of each show in the key of Elton John or Billy Joel.

“The No. 1 request we get is ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’” Prosser says, running his hands across the keys of a shiny black piano, before breaking into a rendition of John’s “Your Song” with a “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” twist.

In the nine years he’s accompanied the theater’s improv actors, Prosser recalls only being stumped once — when an audience member requested “Hickory Dickory Dock.”

“I know it’s a rhyme,” Prosser says. “But how does the tune go? The audience had to sing it for me. It’s not often that I get stumped.”

A theory-and-composition major in college, Prosser grew up playing piano and listening to INXS, Tears for Fears and U2, bands that he says have expressive, charismatic front men.

As a teenager he wrote a musical revue about the lives and philosophies of his Pennsylvania high-school classmates and teachers. The school’s music director was so impressed with the show, he asked Prosser, then a senior, to write the music and lyrics for a children’s musical.

“My whole theater experience started with writing children’s songs,” Prosser says. “It’s why FST turned into such a good fit.”

In the early 1990s, Prosser was working at a summer theater camp in New Jersey, when he responded to an ad listed in “Art Search,” a national theater-job-listing newsletter. FST Artistic Director and creator Richard Hopkins was looking for a pianist to develop new shows and write songs for his children’s theater program. After letting the opportunity percolate for a while, Prosser, who had watched most of his college friends accept steady positions as school music teachers, decided to apply.

“I believed in the creative path,” Prosser says. “I’m more the carefree freelancer who says, ‘Let’s see what comes out of this.’ It’s not that I couldn’t teach or that I lack the discipline, it’s that I wanted to stay close to the creative process, push boundaries and write music.”

And like any creative process, Prosser’s job requires hours of prep work. Months before a show goes into rehearsal, Prosser immerses himself in sheet music, changing and morphing chords, arranging and rearranging parts with no clue as to how it’ll sound on the performers’ lips.

“When I first start putting a score together I don’t know who’s singing what,” Prosser says, “but I have to give the actors a place to start, so there’s always preliminary interpretation.”

Although he’s a classically trained pianist, he’s a theater junkie at heart. During FST’s 2006-2007 cabaret season, Prosser performed and played the synthesizer in “The British Invasion,” a musical about the influence of British rock bands on the American music scene in the 1960s. The score was loaded with songs by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who, including Prosser’s favorite band — The Beatles.

“I enjoy doing shows that are specific to an era and tell a story,” says Prosser. “You’re pulling culturally and ethnically from a different palette.”

When Jim Prosser moved to Sarasota in the early 1990s, he sang and played piano at a number of local coffeehouses and bookstores, many of which no longer exist. Although he still writes and records music in his North Sarasota home, he no longer performs outside of Florida Studio Theatre. In season, he barely has time to play for himself.

Prosser, who owns a 15-year-old synthesizer nicknamed The Beast because it’s so old and bulky, says he’s grateful he no longer has to take his keyboard to work. When he first started at FST, rehearsal keyboards were scarce. Now the company has five pianos –– three acoustic and two electric –– and several synthesizers.

“It’s not like playing a guitar,” Prosser says. “You can’t go to the beach and whip out a keyboard.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].


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