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Every little thing she plays is magic — Chicago fiddler lands plum gig in Sting’s ‘Last Ship’
As Martha McDonnell tells it, she began bothering her parents about wanting to play the violin from about the age of three.
Little could she have imagined that her passion for the fiddle would one day result in her first post-college “gig” — playing in the orchestra for the world premiere of Sting’s musical, “The Last Ship,” which begins previews at the Bank of America Theatre on June 10, and opens June 25.
“I really don’t know where that fascination with the violin came from,” said McDonnell, who grew up in Wayne, Ill. (“horse country”), attended St. Francis Preparatory High School in Wheaton, and has just completed her Bachelor of Music degree at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. “My parents didn’t play any instruments, but my grandparents were musical, so maybe that’s the source.”
In any case, by the age of six, McDonnell had a violin in hand, and was studying classical music (in part by way of the Suzuki method).
“But it wasn’t long before I started to get a little frustrated, so my wonderful teacher at the time said: ‘Why don’t we try a fiddle tune?’ I think the first thing I learned was a little ditty called ‘Boil That Cabbage Down.’ And from then on I played both kinds of music — the same instrument, just a different style. And I love trying to bridge the gap.”
As she headed toward graduation this winter, McDonnell knew she wanted music to be part of her life, “whether from the business side or performing, which I’ve been doing all along.” And then, this past February, she got a call from a friend who she’d been playing fiddle with for years.
“She is Scottish, and plays with the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony, and she had heard about the audition for musicians Sting was holding in Chicago [at Steppenwolf Theatre]. She recommended me, and I got a call to come and try out.”
As McDonnell recalled recently: “At that point I really didn’t know much about the show at all, except that it was influenced by the music from Sting’s home town, Wallsend, in the northeast of England. And that was a style of fiddling I was familiar with — the kind of music I’d been playing my entire life. It’s very Celtic sounding, with jigs and reels and the use of minor keys.”
A leggy, saucer-eyed, 22-year-old blonde, who has already traveled the U.S. and Europe performing Scottish, Irish, Appalachian, bluegrass, and classical music — and who is experienced at chatting with audiences from her music club gigs — McDonnell, admits to being a bit nervous as she arrived for the audition.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said the fiddler. “It turned out to be a very unorthodox audition because usually, for classical music, you walk into the room, and there is a piano, and it’s pretty formal. But this was different — really wonderful. Sting was there, and he’d brought his guitar, and he was singing along with one of the leads in the show, and basically I just got to jam with him.”
“It was just an informal, really fun jam session. He asked me to play a few tunes, and I did two traditional Scottish ones — ‘Pigeon on the Gate’ and ‘Dinky’s Reel.’ I’d also been sent a bit of audition music three days earlier — with charts that only had chords, no notes — and mostly we just improvised the way I’ve always done with my own band.”
McDonnell founded The Involuntary String Band, her own pop fusion quartet, in 2012, as an outgrowth of an Entrepreneurial Musician class taught by Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music. The group has been heard on both Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television, and most recently performed a bluegrass concerto with the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra.
“What amazes me most about Sting is the diversity of his musicianship,” said McDonnell. “Growing up, I heard my parents play a lot of his music with The Police, and then I heard his solo albums, and now there’s ‘The Last Ship,’ which is so beautiful, and so different.”
McDonnell’s contract is for the Chicago run only at this point, with the opportunity to move on to Broadway still to be determined. Meanwhile, she will have to miss her June 15 graduation ceremony at Lawrence University as she becomes (as far as she knows at this point) the only female musician in the pit.
‘THE LAST SHIP’
When: Previews begin June 10; runs June 25-July 13
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Info: (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com