Still a song man
It’s 10 days to show time, and Scott MacCracken isn’t sure what songs he’ll be singing at the Broadway Players Go Big Band. Nor does MacCracken, billed as special guest vocalist for the show, know how many tunes he’ll sing, what he is to wear, or even who makes up the 16-piece band that will be backing him this week at the Wheeler Opera House. It’s not as if MacCracken performs so frequently these days that the dates have become a blur. The 55-year-old Aspenite has a day job as manager and buyer (“and, of course, product tester,” he says) at the liquor shop Local Spirits, and it’s been some two decades since he was singing for a living.Still, MacCracken is as relaxed as can be. One reason is that there were years when he sang most every night. From 1974, the year he first moved to Aspen, until 1981, he was a cast member at the Crystal Palace dinner theater. After moving to New York, in 1982, he spent a year and a half singing the lead role in a touring children’s theater production of “The Life and Times of Charles Dickens.”MacCracken has faced far bigger audiences than a full Wheeler, and with far less support than he will have at the Broadway Players show. In 1999, the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl year, MacCracken sang “The Star-spangled Banner” – solo, as in completely unaccompanied – at a packed Mile High Stadium.And though he is no longer a full-time performer, MacCracken is still an every-day singer. “Whenever I can, whenever I think I can get away with it, I’ll sing out, sing a song. Much to the neighbors’ chagrin,” he said. “And not just for fun, but paying attention, refining it. Like tennis or skiing, it’s muscular conditioning.”Probably the main reason, however, that MacCracken can carry such an easy air of comfort is the same reason he was plucked out of third grade one day and plopped down in the fourth grade choir. MacCracken has a natural singing voice, an instrument that effortlessly produces a strong, pleasant sound. You can hear it in his speaking voice, a notably rich baritone (although he can also sing bass and tenor parts) that has been tapped for commercials, and by the Aspen Music Festival for its promotional videos.
“I’ve always had exceptional musical talent. I don’t think you’d find anyone who would argue with that. And I say that even though I consider myself humble,” said MacCracken, who, since being interviewed for this article, has learned that his song list for the upcoming Broadway Players show includes XXXXX. (He already knew he was responsible for a Bobby Darin mini-tribute – “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea,” neither of which has he ever performed – as well as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” in a trio with fellow Broadway Players Jeannie Walla and Terra Vestrand.MacCracken’s mother played piano in the family’s Detroit home, while his father and brother, older by three years, sang. But MacCracken says it was obvious early on who had been given the natural gift.”They could sing nicely. But they had no reason to follow music further than singing in church,” said MacCracken, with no bluster. “But I had the talent, so it was decided that that was something I would pursue.”The big awakening came in third grade. MacCracken says he remembers it clearly, the music teacher taking him out of class to audition for the fourth-grade choir.”It was a big, big deal. It was important, as a third-grader, to be put in with the fourth-graders,” said MacCracken, who won not only a place in the choir, but a spot as a soloist at the ensuing concert. A short time later, the music teacher discovered that MacCracken could harmonize as naturally as he could sing solo. “That’s when things really started to open up for me, as far as being recognized as having a lot of natural talent.”MacCracken says his parents nurtured his natural talent rather than pushing him to climb any achievement ladders. So his training was more in the nature of listening to music at home – he recalls a diet heavy with Broadway tunes – than in taking formal lessons. Still, by the time he was a high school sophomore, he was a paid soloist at the family’s church. “And it wasn’t your normal, blue-haired lady, Lutheran choir. It was big and solid,” said MacCracken, who also took up trombone and baritone saxophone as a kid. Through his high school years, MacCracken would spend summers as a soloist with Youth for Understanding, a 60-voice youth choir that would tour for weeks at a time through Europe and South America.In college, MacCracken devoted himself to getting a formal education in music. He graduated with a degree in vocal performance from Capital University, a liberal arts Lutheran college in Columbus, Ohio. The program, which MacCracken praises, emphasized opera and art-song techniques. He also sang oratorio, barber shop and solos in Handel’s Messiah.
Fresh out of school, MacCracken aimed for an opera career, and auditioned for such leading companies as Chicago Lyric Opera, and the National Opera in Washington, D.C. He didn’t get any job offers, but by the time the auditioning process had ended, he says he didn’t care all that much.”It was enlightening. Because I realized that’s not the way I wanted to go,” he said. “It was so very straight-laced. Especially for a younger singer who would be in an intern program in one of those organizations. It would be excruciatingly demanding, and I thought there had to be a more fun way to make a living.”MacCracken came to Colorado not so much for the fun, but because his family had had long ties to the state. And he chose Aspen not so much because there was a fun job opportunity awaiting him, but because he knew of the city’s reputation for arts and culture. But shortly after moving to Aspen, in 1974, he landed a job that was fun, and allowed him to discover a sort of musical performance he was unfamiliar with. MacCracken lasted seven years at the Crystal Palace, where he mixed satirical songs with music that was more his specialty, straight Broadway tunes and standards. (The Palace, at the time, leaned more on familiar material than it does now.)MacCracken left the Palace for the short-lived Columbine Dinner Playhouse, in the basement of the Pitkin County Courthouse Annex. In the space now occupied by the housing department, MacCracken appeared in “Godspell” and “Cabaret,” before the company folded, after one year.The Columbine experience would not have been so memorable had MacCracken not met Marisa Post there. Post is not only his wife of 23 years, but also convinced MacCracken to leave Colorado for New York City. There, MacCracken landed the gig as Charles Dickens, sang in some ensemble shows, and helped develop the musical “Baby.” But the city would prove not more enduring than the Columbine Dinner Playhouse; after a year and a half, the couple headed back West.”By that time, Marisa had seen life outside New York. And I saw life in New York, and didn’t really want it,” said MacCracken.This time in Aspen, he capitalized on other skills he had learned at the Crystal Palace. The Palace’s wine steward when he left, MacCracken entered the liquor business, as a sales rep, and is now manager of Local Spirits. The career change has meant less performing, but he still finds opportunities to get in front of an audience. He has performed all but one of the Broadway Players shows over the past decade or so; has appeared in a handful of Aspen Community Theatre productions, including “A Little Night Music,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hello, Dolly!”; and did Aspen Theatre in the Park’s “Side by Side by Sondheim.” He has sung with the Aspen Choral Society and the Aspen Music Festival.MacCracken’s natural abilities extend only so far. Something of a vocal purist, he has never embraced pop music or jazz. His preference is for classical. In 1986, he performed a recital of classical songs, mostly by Vaughan Williams, in Aspen and Carbondale, as part of the Aspen Chapel concert series. It is the kind of show, above all, that he’d love to do again.
“I tend to go for as pure a sound as I can get,” said MacCracken, “so I don’t tend to go much for rock ‘n’ roll or country. I’ve even been accused of singing standards and Broadway a little too nicely.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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