The concept originated in Indiana in 1984, when local businessman Bill Cook started the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps. A year later the group had the highest placing ever for a rookie group in the International Championships, and in 1991 took home the Drum Corps World International championship title. Director James Mason, looking for ways to expand the concept, joined the Corps with the Canadian Brass Quintet for a tour of North America in '94. That developed into a theatrical production of classical music that played Lincoln Center and was featured as a special on PBS. The production found a temporary home in Branson as Mason began work on what would become BLAST! The show debuted in '99 in London and began a sold out run. In 2001 it opened on Broadway and won a Tony for Best Special Theatrical Event and started its first national touring schedule that same year after winning an Emmy for best choreography.
Calling BLAST! a musical doesn't do it justice. It's a spectacular, a mix of theater, rock pageantry and athleticism. The music is both eccentric and eclectic, not your usual drum and bugle corps/marching band fare, encompassing works from Ravel's Bolero to Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim's Gee Officer Krupke. Chuck Mangione gets a turn with Land of Make Believe and Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is also featured.
BLAST! is a huge scale performance with 60 performers, 61 brass instruments and 234 percussion instruments dueling, dancing and interacting in a musical circus, with all three rings going at once. North Carolina native Jon Leonard is a member of the show's "visual ensemble," a retinue of dancers who are as much jugglers as acrobats, and who twirl and toss a trunk-load of props to enhance the music. "It's not your usual plot musical with the characters and everything," says Leonard, a graduate of the N.C. School of the Arts. "It's such a high entertainment show, [with] the live music, heavy choreography--and you get a real chance to interact with the audience and see their reaction to things that night after night, they're amazed at it and blown away by."
Leonard and his fellow VE's manipulate some 265 pieces of equipment in the course of an evening's entertainment. The troupe underwent months of rigorous training to prepare for the show. "We had about eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week for three months," Leonard says. "We had everything from acting class to vocal class, to dance class. We had aerobic activity, we had weight training--everything to try to get you in shape for this tour."
The job entails handling various props from metal to wood to fabric. In addition to the usual things that one associates with marching bands--including rifles and flags--BLAST! members have to deal with more esoteric items like 6-foot tall glowsticks, 10-foot poles and grass blades. Even for an accomplished juggler, grass blades might be a bit of challenge. But because of the grand scale of the show, the blades are wooden ones blown up to a three-foot size. Leonard says it's similar to a rifle you would see in a marching band, but with a theatrical, creative side to it.
But BLAST! is much more than a series of vignettes enhanced by circus performers. "The show takes you through a color spectrum by relating each scene to a color that represents the music from that scene," Leonard explains. "So you go all the way from black all the way around to red. Each number has a different color that is represented and the props and the costumes and the lights are brought out to match the timber of the music."
But nobody stands around flat-footed belting out a number. Even the musicians are athletes: A trumpeter does cartwheels, a trombonist performs on a unicycle and another trumpeter is lowered from the rafters for his solo. Percussionists engage in a dance-duel and juggle while keeping time and marching.
There's some audience participation that starts during intermission when a drum quartet cuts loose in the lobby, and some interaction with didgerydoo wielding cast members during act two. But for the most part, BLAST! keeps the audience blasted back in their seats from the sheer intensity of the production.
Leonard says the best way to describe it is "not to think about the theater, or a musical or those things the genres have stereotyped. You can see anything when you come to see our show." You can hear a variety of musical genres as well. The show mixes classical, rock, pop and jazz with eye-popping visuals. "Every second of the show is choreographed to a T," Leonard explains. "With choreography from the musicians that are on stage, to the dancers, to the percussionists, all the lighting effects, it's definitely quite an exciting show."
And while the show is exciting, some of the places it goes aren't. Asked what the least favorite part of his role in show business is, Leonard admits that sometimes the geography gets to be too much for him. "You have to take the good with the bad, and right now I'm in Omaha, Nebraska," the Rocky Mount, N.C. native says glumly. "You never thought you'd be in Omaha, Nebraska, but sometimes you have to take that with your nicer cities." But at the end of the day, even in Omaha, the performers and the audience agree that the show is still a blast.