FST pianist thrives in crafting the music of cabarets
He’s the indispensable man behind the music. For three decades, Jim Prosser has been FST's Piano Man.
| 10:00 a.m. December 7, 2022
Arts + Culture
For 30 years, he's been one of the most recognizable faces in the Sarasota theater world. And he rarely accepts a curtain call.
Jim Prosser, Florida Studio Theatre's resident pianist, arrived on the scene decades ago as an intern with hopes of writing music for children's theater. He quickly made an impact at the company, and over the years, his role has grown and grown.
At this point, says FST Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins, the audience greets Prosser as soon as he steps on stage. And it hardly matters that he's situated on the stage periphery.
"He's probably the most well-known performer on the cabaret stage," says Hopkins. "Jim has played so many cabaret shows the audiences know him and love him. It's truly amazing. I was surprised maybe 10 years ago when I realized that, 'Oh, they know who Jim is.'
"Because the piano player is not dead center."
Truth be told, that's exactly how Prosser likes it.
He loves being part of the ensemble, and he's thrilled that he gets to be such a vital part of a performance on a regular basis.
It's been a natural evolution for the piano man, who says he grew up in a musical household in New Haven, Connecticut. His dad, Hal Prosser, played a lot of Broadway, Beatles and show tunes, imparting a lifelong love of music that has enriched the younger Prosser's life.
"He was my musical education," says Prosser. "He basically made me want to play music every night. Every night, there would always be music playing while we had dinner. Whether it be musical theater or The Beatles. Even classical music. There was a melting pot of musical influences growing up that kind of got into my writing."
Prosser says his facility for writing music was learned at the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where he was fortunate enough to learn from musical mentors who helped him get the most of his ability.
He was already writing songs for student revues in high school, and he later went on to study theory composition. Shortly after graduating college, Prosser had enrolled in business school with the intention of finding a safe job when he found an ad for his future home.
"Before computers, an art search was actually on a piece of paper that was mailed to you," he says. "I saw the ad came back and just found me again, and I'm like, 'Well, I guess I'm supposed to do this.' So I left business school, answered the ad, and the rest is history."
What does Hopkins remember about a young Jim Prosser?
He was struck immediately by the earnest young musician's skill and affinity for children's programming, which came in short supply.
"He was young and gangly, just out of school but very enthusiastic. He had a nice touch for music for kids," says Hopkins. "He continues to write for our children's theater. And he's heavily involved with works in the cabaret — playing those shows and helping develop those shows. He's in great demand at Florida Studio Theatre. We need three Jims."
Rebecca Hopkins, the managing director of Florida Studio Theatre, says that Prosser was already part of the scenery when she arrived in town. She met him as a peer and quickly grew to be his friend, and their relationship deepened over years working together.
The interesting part about Prosser, she says, is that his passion for musical theater has never dimmed. He's had a hand in developing more than 50 musical revues for FST over the decades.
"This guy is playing in a cabaret nine shows a week for almost 50 weeks of the year," she says. "If he gets a random night off that happens to coincide with the improv company, he'll come in and play that show just for fun because he misses being able to do it."
And while his stage work is a vital part of his contribution, Prosser has proven indispensable in crafting cabarets and "Laughing Matters."
It's not just that he does all the musical arrangements. Richard Hopkins says that in the early conceptual stages of cabarets, Prosser is actually the only voice holding the project together.
"We're usually using recordings," he says of the cabaret process. "But once it's far enough along, we ask Jim to sing all the roles.
"And we get other actors to read the book parts to see how it's going. We call that an in-house reading, and Jim is great at that."
Then, once the running order is agreed to, Prosser really puts his stamp on the project. He'll take the music home and work on it for a week, and when he comes back, the cabaret is fully fleshed out.
"Jim is playing the show, but he may add a drum, he may add a bass, he may add a horn," says Hopkins. "He'll add other things that he plays on the piano, but he records it in and loops in.
"So everything that you hear in the cabaret, Jim has created and played. And sometimes you might hear three or four instruments and that's all Jim. His contribution is mammoth."
Sarah Durham, a writer and performer at Florida Studio Theatre, says she's been at the theater for five years and that she's collaborated with Prosser on pretty much every big project she's worked on.
"It's hard to find someone that does no wrong, but Jim Prosser is one of those people," she says. "He's just such a caring, kind, giving co-worker. Whenever I can partner with him, I want to."
The cabaret shows are collaborative efforts, and Prosser is usually laying down the supporting licks for the singers to carry the show.
But sometimes his quick thinking is needed to save his colleagues.
Rebecca Hopkins mentioned one such evening, when a singer had a mishap entering the stage and needed some extra assistance.
"She was coming down the stairs for a cabaret show to sing "Someone to Watch Over Me." And she tripped coming down the stairs and tumbled," she says. "The audience sees this and gasps. She gets up, makes a joke about it and forgets what she's there for. Because she's so flustered. Jim plays a few notes and starts singing the song to her. Someone to Watch Over Me. It was a very poignant moment."
Prosser, for his part, says his colleagues carry the show on a nightly basis and he's thrilled to be making music with them.
Sometimes, he says, the job can be exhausting because they regularly play about six shows between Friday and Sunday.
But it's so rewarding for him to take some of the most beloved songs in the pop canon and to give them new life on the FST stage.
"It's just fun," he says. "I like approaching music in new ways and making it fresh. And that's what I've liked about the cabaret."
Over time, says Richard Hopkins, company members become more than colleagues. They become family.
Prosser has endeared himself to his colleagues with his affable personality and his unflagging work ethic, and Hopkins says it's not difficult to imagine him being at FST another 20 years.
"Easily," he says. "As long as his fingers hold out."