Mind and Soul

Broadway veteran John Monaco reflects on his rich musical life and gives advice to the next generation

Volume 118, No. 1January, 2018

interview by Bob Pawlo


John Monaco, a member of Local 802 since 1949, is a veteran of musical theatre. He has served as the musical coordinator for close to 75 Broadway musicals and played guitar and banjo on 40 more. An admirer of Django Reinhardt and Les Paul, Monaco has had the privilege of working with Richard Rodgers, John Kander, Jule Styne, Elmer Bernstein, Harvey Schmidt, Philip Springer, George Forrest, Robert Wright and Stephen Flaherty. One of John’s favorite sayings, which he attributes to Toscanini, is that music is one-tenth talent and nine-tenths sweat. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently caught up with John to hear about his life in music.

Bob Pawlo: I’m going to ask you my typical opening question, because it usually opens a lot of doors: how did your incredible journey in music begin?

John Monaco: I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. We had neighbors who loved to throw music parties. I would listen to them and loved it, and I knew I wanted to join in. I worked at the local butcher shop as a bicycle delivery boy. I saved up $16, which was a lot of money, and bought my first guitar. I taught myself to play. Finally, my neighbors let me sit in, and it was fantastic. But someone at one of these parties accidentally sat on my guitar and broke it. I was devastated, and I told my parents what happened. I asked them to loan me $32 to buy a new instrument. At first my mother said, “$32! That’s a week’s salary! Ten dollars more, I can buy a house!” And then she said, “What are you going to do with this guitar?” I couldn’t look at her for a moment; I looked up at the ceiling. Finally I said, “I want to make a career out of it.” She looked at me for a couple of seconds. I said to myself, “Oh boy…help me!” Then she said, “Let’s go!” We went down to Fulton Street in Brooklyn to a store called New York Band and bought the guitar. I started taking lessons. I became obsessed. I was practicing almost nine hours a day at one point. Finally, I graduated to a new teacher, Giovanni Vicardi, whose nickname was The Professor. I knew he was the answer for me. When I played a scale, if I went 50 miles an hour, he would do a hundred. He showed me how all technique comes from the wrist. I studied 10 years with him. I also studied solfège with him, which helped me so much with my sight-reading. And these lessons are where I also picked up banjo.

Bob Pawlo: So when did you start playing gigs?

John Monaco: Around age 19, after I had been playing for about three years, I started playing little parties, then weddings. Then I got gigs in the Catskills. Finally, I got my first big break. I got a call from my friend Chuck Roberts. He told me “Go to this Broadway theatre tomorrow at 8 p.m. Don’t bring your guitar. Walk up to the conductor.” So I show up. There’s a cast of 50. It’s big time, with a big orchestra. The show is by the famous dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. I go to the conductor, Gilberto Valdes. He tells me to sit next to him. He says, “You just follow me, and don’t play. I want you to watch and listen. Look at the stage. Turn the page. Tomorrow, you play.” It’s like I’m an apprentice. I look at the guitar part and ask the maestro, “Where are the chord symbols?” He said, “There aren’t any.” It turns out that I’m one of the guitarists who can read music, and my friend Chuck knew it. Soon, I was called in to see Ms. Dunham. She complimented my playing and said she was aware it was a tough chair with tough music. I said, “I know. I was practicing it at 4 a.m.” She asked me, “Are you willing to travel with my company?” I said yes. This became my stairway to the stars. I became like brothers with the conductor. Much later, I came back to NYC, and I got a gig subbing for “Finian’s Rainbow.” I sat down for a show and sight-read the score on banjo, and once again I got the gig because I could read. From there, it was an express train to Broadway. I met Richard Rodgers and John Kander. I got to know some of the big insiders who made Broadway work: Morris Stonze, Stanley Lebowsky, Red Press. My world started getting bigger. I started contracting shows, not just playing for them.

Bob Pawlo: That’s such a big part of your story. How did you begin contracting?

John Monaco: It was the late 1970s. My father and brother both died, one right after the other. Then my mother died soon after. It was a life-changing time for me. I decided I needed a change, even though I wanted to stay in the music business. I gave up all of my students – I had 50 of them at the time. I stopped playing shows. Then John Kander decided to give me my first big shot as a contractor for his 1981 musical “Woman of the Year” with Lauren Bacall. After that, I started contracting more shows through Marvin Krauss’s office.

Bob Pawlo: What is the key to being a good contractor?

John Monaco: I run a tight ship. There are no playing games, no fooling around. I look for knowledge and performance. I want musicians who are always early. I want musicians who are dressed impeccably. I want musicians who don’t abuse their fellow musicians. Don’t have a big ego. Be kind and gentle. I want musicians who are looking at the conductor. I also like diversity: men and women together, all cultural and racial backgrounds. And the key in contracting is knowing that friendship does not work when hiring. You have to hire the best players, whether or not they are your friends.

Bob Pawlo: How should young musicians approach a contractor to try to get a gig?

John Monaco: Well, if you have friends, they can recommend you – but only if you’re a great musician, like I said a second ago. You can sometimes call contractors out of the blue. Tell them who you know and who can recommend you. Maybe you can get your first gig as a sub.

Bob Pawlo: How would you describe the benefits of joining Local 802?

John Monaco: I joined Local 802 when I was 20. I know that being a union member would pave the way for me to get somewhere. Without Local 802, forget about it. Joining the union is the best thing for your career. And Local 802 is there to help, to guide you. It opens doors. You’ll meet a lot of people. How could you survive without Local 802?

Bob Pawlo: You’re 89 years old, and you’ve played music your entire life. As you reflect back, what words of advice do you have for younger players?

John Monaco: Music has to come from both the brain and the heart. You can’t survive just with just the brain or with just the heart. It’s got to come from both places. And also, you have to love music so much that you want to eat it! That’s what I did. When I say this, I mean practice. As Toscanini said, it’s one-tenth talent and nine-tenths sweat. I used that throughout my life. I always found time to practice. I believe that when we’re born, God blesses each one of us with talent. So let’s assume that you have musical talent. Then all you gotta do is sweat. Just practice, and enjoy what you’re doing. Do your ultimate best, and if you can’t find it, go looking for it. It’ll come. I didn’t have many teachers, but I used to read and watch. Keep your mouth closed and your eyes open. In my career, my fellow musicians depended on me and I was proud that they could count on me. Thank God for my teacher, Giovanni Vicari, The Professor. Thank God for the experience of meeting new musicians and bonding with them. And thank God for my parents, who gave me the money to buy my guitar. My older brother Lou is 94, and he still tells me, “I never forgot that Mom gave you $32 in 1945!” That’s how it all began.