Washington pianist ascends to Broadway
John Bell conducts at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York City.
John Bell and his mother, Janet, outside the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York City in June
Even before he could reach the keyboard, John Bell would bounce to the rhythm of records on the family’s piano bench. At 1 year old, John had a gift.
But talent alone did not land him the role of assistant musical director to the largest orchestra on Broadway.
“I’m doing my first Broadway show in the fall,” Bell, 31, said of his upcoming premiere with “On the Town.”
“Pretty thrilling, I think.”
The pianist was born to former Washington County judges John Bell and Janet Moschetta Bell, who raised their son with his favorite records on repeat. When his love for music was recognized, they pursued all the county’s artistic outlets.
“Anything we could do to provide (for John) within Pittsburgh or here (in Washington), we did,” said Janet Bell. “He had an insatiable appetite for all these different disciplines – piano, voice, organ and theater.”
By middle school, John was practicing his scales at Ann Weber’s home, a few blocks from his own home in East Washington. A piano instructor for more than 50 years, Weber remembers John’s unmistakable potential.
“He has a wonderful, bright mind,” Weber said, certain he’d pursue a life in the arts.
A 2001 Washington High School graduate, Bell performed in the school band and a number of musical productions while in high school. Outside of class, he served as a cantor and organist at Immaculate Conception Church in Washington and acted in Washington Community Theatre productions.
“Every moment was music, music, music,” his father said, recalling his regular trips into Pittsburgh as the carpool driver to Children’s Festival Chorus practices.
Although impervious to the stereotyped storylines of musicians skating from barstools to Broadway, John’s future in the entertainment industry appeared as black and white as a keyboard.
“For him, there was no other choice,” John’s mother said.
With a musical theater degree from Ithaca College and master’s degree in piano from the City College of New York, John served as musical director on productions along the East Coast.
Each time a show closed, he sought the next opportunity.
“I would do every project that came my way, in hopes of meeting someone who could open up the next door,” John said.
John’s successes eventually brought him to New York City.
“(John has) never waited on tables yet,” his father said. “He always seems to have a show.”
At age 24, John found his name in the New York Times. The review praised John’s work as a musical director of his first show in the city, “Meet Me in St. Louis” at The Repertory Theatre.
The day the review ran, John received a call from a friend at 6 a.m. He skipped steps on his way down to the newsstand at the corner of his block and ripped open Anita Gates’ glowing review.
Despite receiving recognition from the Associated Press, The Times and The Wall Street Journal, John maintained the same realistic approach.
“It’s exciting,” John said of his press clippings. “But it’s a paper, and like everything else in life, it can go both ways.”
After performing as a pianist and musical director for a string of off-Broadway shows at prestigious New York theaters, including Radio City Music Hall, John landed a concert on Broadway in early June.
“The Spectacular Songs of Lerner and Loewe,” featuring a compilation of pieces from the duo responsible for musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “Brigadoon,” was staged at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. As musical director, John ensured all the songs interwove seamlessly through the production, complementing each performer’s abilities.
Even as John begins rehearsals for his second Broadway musical in August, the assistant musical director has not lost sight of his most basic role – to tell a story.
“That’s why theater’s so important, because storytelling is one of the most basic things we do as humans,” John said.
Although John’s father still holds reservations that the next show may be his son’s last, the retired judge is proud to admit that the statement has yet to hold true, because of his son’s outlook.
“You never know what’s going to happen in life,” the younger John Bell said. “My ultimate goal is to keep doing what I’m doing – at higher levels.”