The main instrument of Mary Ehlinger is…

“Piano. I used to be really, really, really good at piano. With this coronavirus, I decided to dust off the grand piano, which I just got when I moved here to town, and I opened it up and I try to play at least one classical piece a day. And, boy, does that hurt my hands.

“But I would learn things when I was auditioning for shows. So I play the drums, I play the piano, the accordion, the guitar, the mandolin, trumpet – and not well. I’m serviceable. I’m not going to toot my own horn.”

The “auditioning for shows” was often in New York City, where Mary Ehlinger lived for 30 years buzzing around showbiz – including as a songwriter – and the Queen Bee on a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float with Little Richard.

Today, her role is 180 degrees opposite. Mary Ehlinger is resident music director for the popular Fireside Dinner Theatre, which hires talent for its shows in New York and Chicago.

“You certainly learn a lot when you sit on the other side of the table – like how to present yourself (by seeing how not to). For a while, I took notes of auditions gone awry. They’re very funny. Of course, now I don’t do that because I have a little more compassion. But some people just make really, really ridiculous choices. I often wonder if they had any training at all. I’d love to offer up some of those suggestions to people, which I do from time to time if they ask. But, it’s some funny, funny stuff.”

On the other hand, she also sees a huge volume of talent.

“It’s amazing. When we are in New York, we see on average 300 people,” she said, the “we” being herself and Fireside Dinner Theatre artistic director Ed Flesch.

“It can be more than that. And if it is, then Ed types (makes a quick evaluation by sight). At times when there’d be 400 or 500 people but we can’t see them all – in no humanly way – Ed brings them in 25 at a time. He looks at each of them, looks at their resume and reads it and makes these sort of piles and thanks them all.

“And everybody is so grateful because otherwise they’d be hanging around all day and possibly not be seen at all. So this way they know, ‘Well, I’m not quite what he’s looking for.’ ‘Thank you very much,’ and he gives them their headshot back if they want them.

“That’s for those open calls that you see that many people. A lot of those people have appointments or EPAs – Equity principal auditions – Equity chorus auditions and dance calls. It’s amazing. It’s overwhelming. Sometimes we have to hire other people to help – just for crowd control.”

The theater in Fort Atkinson auditions three or four times a year for its shows. Here is a selection of it past productions:

“Beauty and the Beast,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Newsies,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Church Basement Ladies” (two of the stories), “A Christmas Story,” “Holiday Inn,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “Annie,” “My Fair Lady,” “Elf,” “Grease,” “42nd Street,” “Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom,” “The Little Mermaid,” “South Pacific,” “Mamma Mia!” “Legally Blonde,” “West Side Story,” “Pump Boys and Dinettes” and “West Side Story.”

Mary Ehlinger is based in Green Bay, her hometown, for her work at Fireside Dinner Theatre, Mountain Playhouse in Pennsylvania and other jobs that come up. More about her experiences is in the first half of this column:

What’s now a road trip for Mary Ehlinger to Fireside Dinner Theatre for many years was an air trip.

“Whenever they’d come out to New York, I played their auditions (as pianist), and then they’d fly me to Wisconsin to music direct,” she said. “So I’d fly in and fly out in the rehearsal period.

“The fact that I live here now was good fortune that I hooked up with Fireside. And yet Fireside has been a life saver for me. Good people that run that place. Good theater. Good friends. I am very lucky. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity.”

How did she hook up in the first place?

“Well, when I moved out to New York, I sent out at some 100 letters to people who were having auditions in town. Theaters come in from all over the place, and they need a pianist for their auditions. Two people responded, and Ed Flesch was one of the two. I met Ed before I met my husband. I’ve known him much longer.”

The theater draws from throughout the Midwest with its year-around series of shows. Each year, talent is cast for approximately 100 roles. Mary Ehlinger is very much involved as part of her responsibilities.

At work at Fireside Dinner Theatre. (Company photo)

“As the music director, I attend the auditions in New York and Chicago. I have input in the casting, but I do not have final say. Ed Flesch is the casting person (who has produced about 200 of the shows), but he always talks to me about how I feel about specific people, so that’s nice.

“And then, as we prepare the music, what I do is in the first stage of rehearsal teach the music or make sure everybody knows the music or knows what it’s doing. I call it the musical GPS. I tell them where they’re going on this and that and try to make the music fit the voices Ed has and the size of the cast that he has.

“I then work with the director and choreographer on what they will need for their purposes, like scene changes, tempos of choreography, any kind of special step we’re going to do.

“I go to Milwaukee, where we record with musicians from the area – Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison. We did get Jerry Pansier from Green Bay to come down there once and play pedal steel.

“I’ve conducted a couple of times, but now I’m the music supervisor, and we bring a conductor in. He brings the whole orchestra together and goes over stuff, and I oversee and make sure everything is what we want – the tempos, the edits, the sound, whatever. Fireside uses live musicians. These people get paid, nicely and respectfully, and they’re treated well. It’s really incredible.

“And then we use those, our own tracks, at the show. When we get the tracks back, if there need to be tweaks, I do the tweaking with my sound guy in Fort Atkinson, Brian Hrpcek, who works at Fireside. So Brian and I work together on tweaking the tracks – sometimes the tempo, sometimes we need a bit of space here, whatever.

“Then, once we get the show up, I have to constantly remind people of this and that – typical musical things ‘can’t understand what you’re saying,’ ‘perhaps you could try this or that,’ as a musical director would.

“And then once we get up with the sound, I have to make sure that the balance is correct. And that’s hard to do in the round because it’s a theater in the round. Every side is different. I am limited with that. All I can do is say, ‘Doesn’t sound good to me’ (she laughed), and they have to fix it to the best of their ability.”

As music director, “I love every show that I work on,” she said. “Well, not all. There’s a couple that I haven’t been a fan of.

“But the very first show that really, REALLY excited me was our first production of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Oh, that was so good, that was so good. I loved ‘The Beast.’

“And then some of the classics – ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ is so well written. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It’s fantastic. ‘Phantom,’ not of ‘… the Opera,’ but by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit. The music is just so amazing, so wonderful.

“I had such a gas doing ‘Legally Blonde’ – who knew? ‘Hairspray’ – oh my gosh. And the last one, ‘Elf,’ was great fun.

“And then the show that I was really surprised that I would love was ‘The Christmas Story,’ with the leg. Oh my, gosh. I will never, ever again question material until I work through it because, it was so fun. That’s a surprise. I enjoyed that.”

Mary Ehlinger has also has performed roles on stage at Fireside Dinner Theatre. She has been one of “The Church Basement Ladies” in that sweetly, comically nostalgic series of musicals. The coronavirus got in the way of her taking the stage this season in “The Church Basement Ladies: A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement.” The show is postponed to Jan. 7-Feb. 21, 2021.

In Green Bay, Mary Ehlinger often takes the stage in Play-by-Play Theatre productions. She is quite, quite experienced, as revealed in this excursion through shows from her career:

At right in “Cowgirls.”

‘Cowgirls’ actually changed the direction of my life in theater. I had auditioned for an Off-Broadway show, ‘Oil City Symphony,’ and I got that and I was able to work with great people. In there, I met Mary Murfitt, who was in the cast.

“Mary started to write the show ‘Cowgirls,’ and when she found out that I was a piano player, she said she had a role for me. So she created this role for me, and she’s writing it, and I was helping her with all the demos. So I was the music arranger. So we put all the stuff together and then, I mean, it went for a number of years working on this show and promoting it and giving these workshops and readings of it.

“In 1994, she said, ‘We finally have a chance to do a show. It’ll be in July.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay, I just want to let to know I’ll be seven months pregnant then.’ She said. ‘Ohhhhh. Okay, we’ll make your character pregnant.’

“So she rewrote the show and made my character pregnant. So I did the show actually seven and eight months pregnant, and then I was pregnant for the next nine years because we did the show for nine more years all around the country and Off-Broadway. So my little boy (Matthew) made the show better, I think.”

In “Oil City Symphony” with creator Mary Murfitt, right, in Play-by-Play Theatre production in De Pere. (Mark A. Jackson)

Mary Ehlinger’s first Off-Broadway shot was in “Oil City Symphony.”

“I’ve been in many, many, many productions of that. I can’t even count how many I did. It was years of shows. And then we did it here with our theater company.

“It was started by four originals. Mary Murfitt is one. Debra Monk was another. People might know Debra from television (‘NYPD Blue’ and an Emmy). They and two other fellows and just created a show because work didn’t work.

“Debra told me they had to create their own work, which is why she created ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’ – Debra and Mark Hardwick were in that original cast. And so they had to do the same again.

“This happens with people when they’re not mainstream performers, shall we say? You have to invent yourself or re-invent yourself. Find your strength and capitalize on that, and that’s what these people did writing ‘Oil City Symphony’ and looked at it as a stepping stone for their careers. And now look where Debra is and Mary as well. It’s interesting to see how creative juices are inspired, and that’s how that show got arranged.”

“Return to the Forbidden Planet” in a Play-by-Play Theatre production in De Pere. (Mark A. Jackson)

Also key in Mary Ehlinger’s career in New York was “Return to the Forbidden Planet.”

“That one was coming in from England, the Olivier Award winner the season before in London. My manager could not get me an audition for that. It was ridiculous. They needed people to play an instrument. It was a self-contained show.

“Someone who I had done ‘Oil City Symphony’ with, another actress, asked me to accompany her on her audition. So I did. When she was done, she said, ‘Oh, by the way, my accompanist, Mary, is really good. You should hear her, too.’ So they did, and I got in and she didn’t! Isn’t that funny. Oh, gotta love it.

“So I got in again. And then they asked me to alternate as the show music director to take over when the music director and the director went back to England. So that’s what I did. I had a role in the show and understudied another role and I was music director and I had a blast.

“It was hard, hard work, of course, learning butchered Shakespeare. I can’t even learn real Shakespeare. The butchered stuff was very interesting. Great fun.

“Wonderful people as well, and I’m still connected with them. They were very supportive when we did the show here in Green Bay.”

There was drama, too, for Mary Ehlinger. With a Pulitzer Prize winner no less, A.R. Gurney in his “The Guest Lecturer.”

“Oh my gosh. Oh, I got to work with Pete – A.R. Gurney, a.k.a. Pete. What a joy that was. How exciting. And John Rando, who directed the show, went on to win a Tony Award for directing ‘Urinetown’ on Broadway and ‘On the Town’ at Lincoln Center. It was exceptional.

“It was a four-person cast. When I worked with Pete, I said how neat it is that he’s like this grandfather writing about this subject. He said, ‘Yeah, my children love me, my grandchildren love me, but I’m twisted’ because of his genre. You look at his works, he does have that little twist in his creative mind.

“But he said he always listens to the actors, because this was a new play, ‘The Guest Lecturer.’ It’s not something that would be done many places because of the subject matter. However, the actors would say the wording sometimes was kind of uncomfortable, and he would adjust it. He said, if the actors have an issue with the written word, he will make accommodations. He said, ‘You always listen to the actors.’ – of course, to the actors who were really exceptional. Not me. The other three (laughs), I was the newbie. I just sat there thinking, ‘Oh, I am so lucky!’”

For 20 years, Mary Ehlinger was part of Macy’s projects. Here is the story of how that connection started:

“I was doing a summer theater at Mac-Haden Theatre, which is in Chatham, New York, and one of the people I met there worked at Macy’s. He was writing for the Macy’s children’s show. They needed a bumblebee trio, so they asked me to be part of a bumblebee trio for their spring fling.

“That was my big move, wearing the bumblebee costume and singing for the ‘Today’ show with Willard Scott and then traveling around.

“As we got more comfortable with each other and every time we did something, the patrons loved it, and it just expanded. And this writer, Bill Schermerhorn, and I started working together on these little shows. I still collaborate with him. We wrote many, many, many tunes – not all gems, but all fun and with incredible Macy’s costumes. Many of our songs would have been in the Macy’s parade sung by celebrities. That’s how that started.

“And then we would travel to different Macy’s stores – Atlanta, Burbank, Boston – and we would do special music for their special events.

“Again, it was from making those connections. Nothing, nothing I’ve done was really ever planned. I didn’t even plan to get married. Nothing.

“Opportunities show themselves. And that’s amazing. It’s most amazing. I love that.

That’s why I say even with the coronavirus shutting down my livelihood and our social connections, I’m still able to fill time and think about creating and think about doing things. It’s not the end. It’s the end of how we do things but the beginning of something new. We’ll figure it out.”

In the course of the interview, Mary Ehlinger would take philosophical side trips like that. To end, here are two more.

One. On how her pregnancy gave her character in “Cowgirls” more character and helped the show go on for nine years: “It raised the stakes of the show in real life – just like this coronavirus thing. It’s raising the stakes of what we do in life now. Why we do it. Like, there’s got to be a greater purpose, and life offers that in the strangest ways. Inspires us. So I hope I keep my positive attitude during this time. I mean, I have a house, thanks to my husband and my dad.”

Two. “When we look at our lives now, it is a circle. It’s a circle! It’s a circle! It’s fascinating. I never would have thought, even this morning when I went outside with my coffee just to walk around the house, take stock of what I have and what I haven’t, and what did I find? (singing) – a healthy balance of sanity, I guess. I never would have expected I’d be here. And it’s good. It is good.”