Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

A topic that has been neglected for far too long on this website is the high quaility of Melody Top's orchestra and musicians. Summer stock pits were rarely filled with the number of players in a Broadway theater; yet they managed to fill tents, barns and other equally challenging environments with exquisite music that was the basis for every production. Donald Yap was the Top's beloved conductor for many seasons, and his affection for Milwaukee's tent was featured in the 1975 article below. A few musicians are listed below the piece; please submit additional names via the "Contact Information" page.

Sweat, Swat and All – Yap Loves His Pit

By Dave Zurawik, the Milwaukee Sentinel, August 29, 1975

Donald Yap works in a place that even his employers call "a pit." It's hot in there. The work demands precision. The precision demands total concentration.

In the pit, you sweat, swat mosquitoes and squint through the darkness. If you are very good in the pit and sometimes lucky, you will go unnoticed.

That's the kind of place Yap works in. And he loves it. Yap, with his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Eastman School of Music, loves directing music in the Melody Top Theater's orchestra pit, mosquitoes, sweat and all.

"Of course all this is going to sound corny as anything," Yap says, "but I'd say the Melody Top is my favorite theater in the country. I love it there. And I've directed the orchestra in quite a few theaters."

Yap has worked in most of this country's major theaters. It started in 1955 in Hawaii.

"I had graduated Eastman as a pianist and was teaching at the University of Hawaii," he says, "when I got my first call."

"A little community theater in the area asked me to handle the music for THE PAJAMA GAME. Well, of course, I'd never seen the play, but I decided it might be fun."

"So, I went out, bought the cast recording and a baton and stood in front of the mirror at home for hours and hours, practicing as a conductor."

"From then on, I've been hooked. I've been doing this sort of thing all over the country for the last 20 or so years. It's a great way to travel."

From the beginning, Yap has traveled first class. He has directed on Broadway and regularly takes charge of the pit at theaters like the Arie Crown in Chicago and Meadowbrook in New Jersey.

"The Arie Crown production was a good one," he says. "It was Gwen Verdon in DAMN YANKEES, and I had a 25-piece, full Broadway-size orchestra. Because Gwen is so demanding a performer, it turned out to be a wonderful production. But I wouldn't pass up my 15 weeks each summer at the Melody Top for it or any other production I've worked in. Does that sound like I'm in love with Milwaukee and the Melody Top?"

Yap has to be in love with Milwaukee, at least a little. He left a production of SOUTH PACIFIC in Hawaii to return to the Melody Top this summer.

"Well, I've been doing the Melody Top since 1970, and I couldn't bear passing it up. It's a special situation."

"First of all, we use 11 musicians and myself – a total of 12 performers – whereas 25 would be used on Broadway. But, instead of creating problems, it makes it more enjoyable."

"The orchestra pit, you see, is a very unique place. You are practically under the lip of the stage, cramped down there and you can go stir crazy. There is no in between. You have to get along."

"Well, at the tent here, we have fewer people, and some of the musicians have been with me since I came here. There's a sense of camaraderie."

"The other thing is the quality of the ensemble here. All the dancers read sheet music. It makes my job so much easier. Plus, there's Jim Smock and Stuart Bishop, two of the finest and most talented people in the business. I worked with both of them at Meadowbrook before I came here. We can cut corners, save time, because we think along and ahead of one another. It's a very strong staff. There's little wasted effort."

Yap is not unfamiliar with wasted effort and lack of cooperation within a staff.

"I won't name the town," he says. "But it was the largest one in Texas – that shouldn't give it away. I also won't name the star of the show. No hints on this one."

"Anyway, just before opening night, he wanted the entire opening number transposed into a different key. Having 25 musicians, this meant quite a bit of scoring for me. We pulled it off, got the charts together, and the star walks out and does the song in the monologue. He talks it. For two weeks, each night he talks it. Why he needed it in a different key if he was going to talk it was beyond me. That wouldn't happen at the Melody Top. Marty (Wiviott) wouldn't let it."

"I'm not saying everything is perfect. Sure there are problems with an outdoor theater."

"There was the time in SOUTH PACIFIC when, just as we gave the singer her lead-in chord, a train whistle sounded. We kept trying to lay the chord out there. Each time, the whistle sounded, like it was scored. Finally, she just started in."

"And the mosquitoes. You look at the charts, there are stains all over from dead mosquitoes."

"But these are small problems when you put out a quality production. In fact, when you have a feeling like the Melody Top's, you laugh more than anything else about things like the train whistle and mosquitoes and all the work. In fact..."

In fact, Don Yap works in a place even his bosses call a pit. And he loves it.

Mib Bramlette and Donald Yap

Mib Bramlette and Donald Yap (musical director/conductor) backstage at PIPPIN (1978).


Orchestra Pit Musicians

1963 SEASON: Joseph Aaron, Harry Bendlin, Willam Boyden, Joseph Gregar, Burt Johnson, Willie Keller, Thom Mason, Edward Mumm, John Rhea, Roger Ruggeri, Stephen Swedish, James Keeley and Arnold Becker.

1964 SEASON: Edward Mumm, James Clark, John Rhea, Richard Metzger, George Powers, Sherman Friedland, Joseph Aaron, Sandra Flesher, Ronald Martinson, Roger Ruggeri, Arnold Becker, James Keeley and Joseph Laspisa.

1965 SEASON: Edward Mumm, Fred Clem, Charles Schlueter, Victor Knutzen, Gene Watts, Joseph Aaron, John Hibler, Joseph Gregar, Ron Martinson, Roger Ruggeri and Roy Schneider.

1966 SEASON: Edward Mumm, Virginia Randall, Roy Schneider, Roger Ruggeri, Joseph Aaron, John Hibler, Vic Knutzen, Charles Schlueter, Roland Pandolfi, Barbara Fraser and Mark Berman.

1967 SEASON: Joseph Aaron, Mark Berman, Sandra Hahn, John Hibler, Richard Kimball, Richard Metzger, Edward Mumm, Roger Ruggeri, Charles Schlueter, Roy Schneider and Rudy Uhlik.

Please submit musician names to be included in future updates to this website via the "Contact Information" page.

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