Five children in a high stakes battle. Who can play piano the best and win the cookie?
When Michael Rafter is your brother, there is no chance.
The Emmy-award winning conductor and professor at Ball State University discovered his musical talent through an at-home piano playing competition. Rafter’s older sister would babysit and teach her five other siblings something on the piano, and whoever could play it best would win a sweet prize.
“I always won the cookie,” he said, “but my brothers beat me up and ate the cookie.”
Though the rest of his brothers were athletic and could pick up a football and throw a “perfect spiral,” the keyboard is what made sense to Rafter.
He won the cookie for a reason. Today, Rafter is the musical director for the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” starring Lea Michelle.
Rafter said his sister is proud to be the one who helped him discover his talent.
“They couldn’t get me away from the piano,” he said. “It just felt so right for me. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was just so comfortable, and so I would just sit there and play for hours upon hours a day.”
Having both perfect pitch and perfect rhythm, music came naturally to the New Jersey native. He quickly leveled out of the advanced piano classes by 1st grade, so he took music theory in 2nd grade. Toward the end of his elementary years, Rafter found musical theatre.
He was on the set of a local performance of Fiddler on the Roof helping move sets when the music director discovered he could sight read. That day, he became the music director’s assistant at a Jewish community center.
It wasn’t long before his next gig.
Due to the connections Rafter made at the community center, he found himself working at the Miss America Pageant at the age of 10.
While Rafter started off as rehearsal pianist for the pageant, a few years later, he ended up writing an arrangement for the Miss America Pageant. Working alongside Debora Rica Lipford, or Miss Delaware at the time, she ended up becoming the first African American to get in the top 10 of the pageant, and he got to see his arrangement played on TV.
Rafter participated in theatre in middle school and high school, but when it came time to go to college, he was a bit burnt out from music. He wanted a school that would push him in languages and mathematics.
He started to look at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But after an interview with MIT, they told Rafter he’d probably get in, but they couldn’t understand why he’d go there when they didn’t have a music or theatre department, something he’d seemed so passionate about in his college essay.
They referred him to Dartmouth instead, and he enrolled there as a math major.
Choosing a school with both music and math ended up being the right choice for Rafter. It wasn’t until Rafter received the highest score in his senior-level math course that he realized his heart truly lies with music.
“I felt nothing,” he said when finding out his test results, comparing it to “Nothing” from the musical “Chorus Line.”
He then changed his major to music and never looked back.
Rafter knew what he wanted, and he was willing to take risks for it. After gaining experience in different roles in the theatre world, he realized he wanted to be a conductor, the one who ran the music for the show.
After being offered an associate role for the national tour of the Tap Dance Kid, Rafter said he’d only be the music director.
“I had the guts for whatever reason at 21,” he said. “[I said], ‘I'm the music director, or I'll just stay here where I am because I'm not going to go back to that.’”
Taking chances and saying yes to everything is what helped Rafter be successful.
Playing piano for an AIDS benefit, something he’d done to support the cause, ended up paying off.
Rafter was able to work with “incredible stars and writers.” At one of the benefits, he played an arrangement of a song composed by Jule Styne, who wrote the score for Gypsy, Funny Girl, Peter Pan and more Broadway shows. Rafter played throughout the night, and as he got up to let the next person take the stage, he realized it was Styne himself.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, he just heard this arrangement of the song that he wrote,’” Rafter said. “I thought my career was over.”
Styne found Rafter after the show and invited him to help work on a new show with him. Rafter ended up being Styne’s assistant for the last eight years of Styne’s life.
“If it's an opportunity, you never know how that door is going to open, but from that, Jule Styne heard me, and from Jule hearing me, he's the one that set me up with ‘Gypsy,’” Rafter said.
“Gypsy” was the first Broadway show Rafter was the conductor for, and he ended up later winning an Emmy for his participation in the movie adaptation.
On the set of “Gypsy,” Rafter met Dick Scanlan, a writer, director and actor known for writing the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Scanlan said Rafter is committed to the storytelling side of theatre. If the story behind a song doesn’t make sense, he can’t play.
“I’ve never worked with a music director that’s so attuned to story, and really every choice they’re making is trying to support that,” Scanlan said, “and trying to deepen the audience’s investment in the characters and understanding the narrative they’re watching, rather than music for music’s sake.”
He said Rafter can play many different styles of music in ways that reveal all they have to offer. Once, a playwright was nervous Rafter would be playing and directing without him because it was jazz music. After Rafter played, Scanlan said the playwright said he didn’t know how they could do the show without him.
“He always understands. It’s never a mistake because he has this extraordinary gift to really understand the heartbeat of a song,” Scanlan said, “and what the heartbeat is and what happens if you speed it up or slow it down a little.”
Scanlan said others don’t have that incredible knowledge of music.
“For a performer, I think music is … at the center of [Rafter’s] nature,” Scanlan said. “He’s interested in the music each individual person can make … He really understands there are all kinds of ways, all different types of musicians can fit in all different kinds of projects.”
Scanlan said Rafter will recognize people’s talent and remember it, and he will think of them when working on another project.
This is something Scanlan did for Rafter. In 2012, Rafter was the music director and conductor for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Broadway.
While Rafter has many credits, he is famously known for being Sutton Foster’s music arranger. Rafter met the actress, singer and dancer through “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Rafter and Foster have played many concerts together and even recorded a CD together in Sursa Performance Hall at Ball State.
“I love playing the piano, which is why for Sutton, I love to get to do her arranging,” Rafter said. “... I also love standing up and conducting or playing and conducting, which I do in “Funny Girl.” I like mixing it up. I like coaching voice.”
While Rafter enjoys conducting, he said it isn’t all he wants to do.
Eventually, he’d find a place at Ball State, and Foster was the one to bring him.
She introduced him to Jo Ann Gora, president of Ball State at the time, and Gora invited Rafter to teach with Foster. He has been at Ball State ever since. Rafter started off as an adjunct professor but came on full time in 2019.
Rafter currently teaches Singing Actor 1 (371), Voice Lesson (328), Musical Theatre Scene Study (373) and Internships (499). He also helps with the senior cabaret class when offered and the New York City showcase, which allows students to showcase their talents to agents in the Big Apple.
Rafter referred to Rodgers and Hammersteins’ “The King and I” when reflecting on his time at Ball State.
“By your pupils, you’ll be taught,” he said. “And it’s so true. You learn from your students. It’s a living organism back and forth, and you are constantly learning from them, so I love that idea. I love that I can pay it forward a little bit, that I have something to offer them. I love the fact that I am working in the business, and I can bring that to them.”
Rafter enjoys Ball State because the students have each others’ backs.
“It’s amazing how giving they are, and they really support each other,” he said. “I see it when we do showcases … If somebody doesn’t have the right [outfit], then it’s ‘Oh, you want to try this one?’ That just doesn’t happen elsewhere.”
He said this camaraderie and kindness is because Bill Jenkins looks for good people and who is a “good egg.”
Johnna Tavianini, associate professor of musical theatre, has been teaching at Ball State since 2013. She met Rafter after working with him in the senior cabaret class.
Tavianini said she and Rafter collaborate on things constantly, and they joke she is his understudy, often stepping in for him when he is away.
“His level of dedication to what he does is really sort of astounding, so there are times when I don’t know if he sleeps,” Tavianini said. “Even now, he has this other gig, being a music supervisor for that little Broadway show, as well as being a full time professor here, the level to which he works so hard to not make students or faculty feel like he doesn’t value the work he’s doing here at Ball State, I can only imagine what a juggling act it has been for him.”
Despite this, she said he is always 100 percent with what is going on in the room, that he never brings an attitude of wanting to be somewhere else.
“I think it just speaks to who he really is and how he does value the people who are there to make music with him,” she said.”
Tavianini said that though Rafter’s career can be intimidating, he doesn’t make her feel like anything less than his collaborator. She feels likes her voice matters when working with him, and they are able to honor each others’ strengths.
Scanlan agreed, saying Rafter doesn’t judge others for being young and not well established.
“He also likes to help young people,” Scanlan said. “This was long before he went on staff at Ball State, he has always been good at mentoring and giving young people a shot.”
Though they are coworkers, Tavianini said every time she works with Rafter, she walks out a better musician and artist.
“I admire and appreciate him for that immensely,” she said.
Rafter does this for his students too.
Imani Brissett, fourth-year musical theatre major, said working with Rafter has helped him grow and learn more about theatre.
One time, Brissett went to Rafter, and in 10 minutes, Rafter was able to help Brissett further himself more in one song than he knew possible.
“Because of his expertise and his knowledge, he was just able to give me that wealth very quickly,” Brissett said. “And I loved him for that, and he's been such a great role model and figure in my life … I can always strive to do well because I know that he thinks I can do well.”
Rafter was a factor in Brissett’s decision to come to Ball State. Brissett had been between colleges, and a friend who went to Ball State told him he should come to the school because Rafter had just joined the staff.
Though he didn’t know much about him at the time, he knew Rafter also composed and wrote music, so Brissett sent his commitment to Ball State just before the deadline.
“I looked him up later, and I was like ‘Wait, what?’ … and I was very eager to meet him and just pick his brain and see if he was a good human,” Brissett said. “He is a great human.”
While Rafter taught some of Brissett’s classes, he also worked with him on Ball State’s production of “Violet.” The musical was written by Rafter’s ex-wife, and he was on the original creative team for the Broadway show.
“I love that musical, and it’s a beautiful and terrific piece,” Rafter said. “And I think there is always something to … learn more about it and from it, and it was nice. It was comfortable kind of going back to it and revisiting it again. And then, changing it up a little bit here and there because suddenly you have a whole different cast, different voice types, and you make it work.”
Brissett said because of Rafter’s experience, he is anal and strict when it comes to shows, but it’s not in a bad way. Rafter is willing to be honest with the students to help them improve, something Brissett appreciates.
“I can clearly see how passionate and how much he cares about the work, and he holds us to a high standard,” he said.
Brissett said Rafter just knows songs off the back of his head and can transpose them on the spot.
“His brain though, that man, the way musical ideas work in his brain, seeing him play piano is so fascinating sometimes,” Brissett said. “Because he does stuff on the piano … he does it so casually. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I just did that.’”
Rafter is a busy man. He currently spends his weeks at Ball State, then he flies to New York City on the weekends to help “Funny Girl.”
In August, “Funny Girl” will be setting out on tour, and Rafter is in charge of checking up on the show.
The revival was something in the works for a long time. Rafter got the call for it in 2015, and it was a rocky start after Beanie Feldstien, who played the star Fanny Bryce, left the show after only three months.
“I never take it for granted, ever, I’ve been associated with too many things, and because of the way it started and the way it looked, they had to make a really tough decision with Beanie leaving and all of that, they decided to keep the show running and replace with this person, and it took off, it paid off for them,” Rafter said. “I really don’t take anything for granted in that way. I’ve been on the other side.”
So if you give a kid a cookie, like Rafter, they might just find their dream.
Contact Lila Fierek with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.