Tulsa’s Cathy Venable spent five years on the road as principal keyboard player and associate conductor for the national touring companies of three major musicals: The Sound of Music, The Phantom of the Opera, and Frozen. She, of course, had no way of knowing that the latter title would turn out to be eerily prophetic, with the COVID-19 pandemic literally freezing the tour for everyone involved.
“The pandemic shut us down in March of 2020,” she recalls. “We were in Portland, Oregon, and the props, the set, all the technical stuff was just left in the theater there, where it sat for several months. We left a lot of our belongings, too, because on a bus you can travel with a trunk that has all the big heavy things and the seasonal things you don’t want to carry in your luggage. Of course, everybody was afraid of COVID at the time and didn’t even want to go back inside the theater.
“So we all went home. And eventually, when things finally started clearing a little bit, they said, ‘Maybe it’s safe to go back in the theater now.’ So they started cleaning everything up and sent us our personal items.”
Hers were shipped to her hometown, where she’d been living since the suspension of the Frozen tour. Then, once the pandemic eased, Venable made plans to leave again for New York, which had been her base for the previous 17 years.
“I was going to go back and say, ‘Okay. I’m ready to be an official regular pianist on a show every night, and I need a gig,’” she says. “But I never got back there. I’m still not back there. That’s okay, because when our industry completely shut down and I moved back home, I thought, ‘I miss Tulsa. I miss my family.’ I realized how homesick I was. I kept saying, ‘I’ve been homesick since I left – in 2003.’ So I told Frozen, ‘Not coming back. Have a good time.’ And it’s still going.
“I do think the time of COVID made us all reconsider everything and figure out what was really important to us,” she adds. “I’d had a really great musical experience in my twenties and thirties when I was in Tulsa. I thought it would be lovely to reconnect with that, and with my family, and to be here and be part of everybody’s lives. Luckily, I have. You never know. I’m glad there were slots for me to fit into here in the music scene.”
Venable first became a part of that scene in the early ’90s, following college and grad school. However, she notes, the seeds for her career in music were sown much earlier.
“The most important thing was Barnard Elementary School. That’s where I learned more music than I did in all my graduate studies. John Townsend at Barnard Elementary School taught me so much music. He changed my life,” she says. “I was an Edison High School kid, and then I went off to Northwestern to college and grad school at Cincinnati. There was a wonderful conservatory there, and they had a master’s degree in accompanying. So I became really narrow-focused and got a degree in accompanying.”
Once she returned to Tulsa, she adds, “I was playing with the Philharmonic, when it was called that, and I was staff accompanist at TU, which was a big job – a lot of hours, playing for everything that went on: choir, opera, everybody’s recitals. I did everything I could in Tulsa. I played for Oratorio Chorus, now known as Tulsa Chorale, and I’m back playing for that again. So I got my job back.”
Although she was finding plenty of work in her hometown then, she knew, as she puts it, “there was something else I wanted to experience.” That, of course, was America’s Mecca for musical performers.
“I was getting ready to turn 35, and I thought, ‘Well, I can turn 35 here or I can turn 35 in New York,’ she remembers, ‘So why don’t I go and try it?’”
“I happened to have some singer friends who came here every summer from New York to star in our shows at Light Opera Oklahoma, and they said, ‘We need someone to sublet our apartment for six months. Why don’t you come up?’
“I thought, ‘That’s the sign I needed. I’ll go.’ I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a job. In music, you know, you just have to go and be there and then you start networking.”
Plan or no plan, things turned out well for her. Soon, she was freelancing as a piano player for a number of different Broadway productions – and doing a little singing as well.
“On Broadway, I was always a piano player, in the [orchestra] pit,” she says. “But I also played rehearsals for shows – daytime rehearsals, run-throughs for understudies – and if someone was missing, I always said, ‘Oh, I’ll sing that part.’ I was the person at the piano who would fill in for whoever was missing. I think that came in handy, and it was fun for me to do.
“I was also a paid singer every Sunday in a really fancy Episcopal church that had an all-paid choir. And I did Buttercup in H. M. S. Pinafore with a little opera company. So I can say that I sang on stage while I was in New York. I love singing, and I love playing for singers; I’ve always been in that world of vocal stuff as an accompanist, and I’ve tried to soak up everything I can. It’s come in handy.”
Another thing that will come in handy, should she ever return to New York, is her ability to conduct an orchestra.
“I had avoided conducting my whole life,” she admits. “I had no desire to do it. And then when I went to Broadway, to New York, I found out that to be the pianist every night on a show, you also have to be the assistant conductor. I wasn’t that, so I made a career out of being a substitute for people on Broadway. The great thing about going out on tour is that I learned to conduct.”
Last year, she conducted Tulsa Opera’s performance of Into the Woods, one of many jobs she’s taken since returning to town. These days, she’s playing regularly for the Tulsa Symphony and Tulsa Chorale as well as for worship services at Harvard Avenue Christian Church. Her holiday season performances include a Tuesdays at Trinity concert of sacred Christmas songs, with Harvard Avenue’s choir director Kelly Ford, set for December 19 at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Tulsa. It’s their third year to do the show together.
Still, while she’s happy and busy in her own hometown, Venable admits “there’s always that thought” about returning to New York and perhaps going out on tour again.
“I’ve had a couple of people call me about different national tours, and I’ve said no, because I really want to be here,” she says. “I think it would have to be something pretty regular or substantial. I don’t think I would want to move back and just be freelancing again, like I did for all those years. I like freelancing in Tulsa.
“And,” she adds with a laugh, “the commute is so good. It’s nice to drive a car again.”