As the curtain rose in November 2015 for the first Broadway performance of “Allegiance: A New Musical,” Laura Bergquist raised her baton on another chapter in a highly successful – and wildly improbable – musical career.
As Music Director and Conductor of the show that depicted the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, Laura was in charge of “anything that happened musically” with the actors and the orchestra. She had spent untold hours in rehearsal and preparation with both the cast and the orchestra for the show based on the family story of George Takei, the actor and activist who first gained fame as Mr. Sulu in the original “Star Trek” TV series. As the performance began in the Longacre theater in Times Square, Laura turned her attention to conducting the orchestra in her first Broadway show.
Broadway music director, conductor of world-class orchestras, award-winning composer and arranger, and choral director of hundred-plus-member choirs. Laura could never have dreamed of the achievements she would chalk up when she first began plunking out hymns on the piano in Southern Baptist churches where her father preached. Her insatiable desire to branch out, her consistent courage to try something new, and her ability to manage many tasks at once have lifted her to multiple levels of success. And through it all, Laura has never lost sight of what motivates her: a desire to create beautiful music that tells wonderful stories, a profound love for her family, and a deep devotion to God.
Laura, the oldest of four daughters, was born in Phoenix, and had the good manners to arrive on a Sunday afternoon, allowing her father to preach at both the morning and evening services at his church. By age six, she could play hymns on the piano, several of them by ear. By age 15, Laura was teaching piano lessons, directing a youth choir, and choreographing Christian-themed musicals at her local church. Her family’s moves to Southern California and then to Wichita, Kansas, never disrupted her musical growth.
She got married to Joe when she was 18, and they soon added three children to their family during the late 1970s and early 1980s. During the same years, Laura also completed a Bachelor of Music Education from Wichita State University and a Master of Music from Friends University in Wichita. She originally expected to use her talents and education in church settings, dutifully following what she thought was her clearly marked path.
“Church pianist, children’s choir director, teaching piano, teaching voice. That was all women could do at the time,” Laura says.
But when the music director of her church in Wichita tapped Laura to conduct the orchestra and church choir for a special service, he was called down for the arrangement by many congregants. The incident made Laura rethink her future path.
“I wanted to be a musician and artist,” Laura said recently, but she had to rethink her plans if her church would not welcome her talents because of her gender. “I had to look outside the church because there were so many roles that weren’t available to me.”
Through a chance encounter, she was introduced to the composer Mark Hayes, who connected Laura to job opportunities within that field. “I looked at this genre and wondered, ‘What does it feel like for someone to sing the music you wrote? …What does it feel like to write something? What does it feel like to hear your work sung by a choir and orchestra?’”
Laura began transcribing orchestral songs into sheet music for vocal books. Ushered into this new and challenging niche, she was soon working steadily for music publishers that represented the Christian elite of the time, stars such as Sandi Patty and Larnelle Harris. She also began writing her own music, including choral, instrumental, and eventually musical theatre. Today she knows just how it feels to write music and hear it performed by someone else.
Thrilled to move in new circles and expand her skill set, Laura kept seeking new ways she could use her musical skills. And she eventually turned toward musical theater, which had fascinated her since she was a child. Laura said she first got the “theater bug” when her dad took her to see a performance of “George M!,” a musical starring Joel Grey when she was about 10.
Decades later, in the early 1990s, she was hired by Music Theatre of Wichita Music Direct and Conduct a performance of “Carousel,” the first woman to ever conduct there. She quickly moved on to work in regional theaters all over the country, musically directing classic shows such as ANNIE, FIDDLER and GYPSY and World Premiers of DADDY LONG LEGS, EMMA and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY for increasingly more prestigious theatres with increasingly more famous casts and increasingly better-known directors.
She moved on to conduct national tours including, THE KING AND I, TITANIC and MISS SAIGON while Joe kept the Wichita home fires burning and a place for their now college-aged children to come home to. Laura would be gone from weeks to months at a time doing 8 performances a week in cities across America, Canada, and even Brazil. Her reputation as a skilled and versatile music director continued to grow, not to mention the easy demeanor and collaborative work ethic she is known for, so when she returned from a national tour of MISS SAIGON, Joe issued a challenge. “You’ve been all over the United States with your music. So how do you feel about going out to play with the Big Kids in New York City?”
The idea surprised Laura, as she had not even considered trying to succeed in such a notoriously difficult arena. But after Joe’s suggestion, she couldn’t get the idea out of her head. “I wonder how I would do in New York City? What does it take to be a musical director there? Would Broadway even be possible? Would my Kansas-born husband like NYC?”
Laura was encouraged by Joe’s steady and unwavering support of her career, so in 2003, the family moved to New York City. Joe and Laura were in their 40s by then, she says, much older than most of the would-be actors and singers and dancers and other performers who move to New York in search of theatrical success. Laura knew she would have to make deliberate choices and also count on some good breaks if she were going to succeed both in her work and in making a good life for her family. Being church people from birth, they knew finding a church community was essential to their building a life in New York. They came to be leaders in small groups, Bible studies, women and men’s groups, music and theatre committees, and thrived in their new church home. Then a family announcement determined their next steps.
Laura and Joe’s son had recently informed his family that he was gay, so they began looking for a church where he would be not only welcomed but celebrated and affirmed. Their current church was wonderfully welcoming but not affirming. “We never wanted to be a one-issue kind of Christian,” Laura explained, noting that the family had attended churches affiliated with several different denominations and felt comfortable in many different settings. “But it was honoring to our son Patrick and dishonoring our family to not go to church where all are encouraged to be a part and serve. We specifically searched for a church that was welcoming and affirming.”
Metro Baptist in Hell’s Kitchen turned out to be that church for Laura and her family. “Metro is housed in a 100-year-old building that uses every square inch of it for worship and service to the community. And there’s a huge amount of love inside. You can be any kind of person here – diverse and colorful, traditional and liturgical, quiet and seeking, skeptical and questioning – and everyone is really warm and accepting. We also saw right away they were boots on the ground, as they do a huge amount of outreach to the neighborhood.” Joe and Laura work in the Winter Clothing Closet and the Food Pantry, cooking for shelters during COVID and anywhere else they are needed.
Patrick Bergquist, now Chief Program Director for Episcopal Charities in New York City, appreciated and approved of his family’s choice of church. “The theater can be a place for oddballs and misfits, and it’s a safe place for castoffs from other communities,” says Laura. “And here was a church who were open to those same people. It was perfect for us.”
Laura was just as thoughtful about looking for openings in the Broadway scene, but breaking into the network seemed elusive, even for go-getter Laura. She took breaks from pounding the pavement by volunteering for various organizations, and one day found herself stuffing envelopes with longtime New Yorkers who wanted to know what had brought Laura to the city.
When she said she had been working in musical theatre, one of the other volunteers piped up, “I’m in musical theatre! Give me your resume and I’ll pass it along.”
This turned out to be the good break that Laura needed. The encounter led to an accompanist gig, which led to a rehearsal pianist role, which led to vocal coaching positions, which led to a casting assistant job with Disney Cruise Lines, and ultimately to full immersion into the Broadway network.
Laura’s full-circle moment came when she was hired as a Conductor for the off-Broadway performance of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in Yiddish – directed by Joel Grey. When she was able to meet Grey and explain how she had admired him since she was a child, Grey said, “It took you all this time to get from the balcony to the pit!”
Although it was interrupted for a time by COVID-19, Laura’s musical theater career has continued to blossom in various directions. She co-wrote a musical, NOT ANOTHER CHRISTMAS LETTER which has been performed in New York City and regionally, and recently finished musically directing CATCH ME IF YOU CAN at Arena Stage in Washington DC. In June she will be at Opera Saratoga conducting SWEENEY TODD.
Her busy professional life is also enriched by a fulfilling family life. Her three children are now “grown, wonderful humans who LOVE to be with us. All are married to amazing spouses and have shared three amazing grandchildren with us. Joe is a licensed New York City tour guide and a dumpster diver who loves living in the greatest city in the world,” she says.
Laura is keenly aware of her good fortune.
“I’ve led me from one opportunity to another. I never gave up dreaming and wanting to find God’s next adventure for me and my family. I never quit, and I never stopped or gave up hope.”
As she looks back on her long career, Laura marvels at how far she – and other women – have come. “A woman conducted THE MUSIC MAN on Broadway in the 1950s, but generally, women playing a major role in the theater industry were few and far between,” she says. “When I started breaking in in the late 90s, early 2000s, I was one of a new group of women that were brand new into the field.”
In those years, whenever Laura conducted a show, multiple performers and audience members would tell her they had never been in or seen a show with a female Conductor. But in Laura’s most recent show, “only one person mentioned she’d never seen a show with a female conductor. …Times have changed, and I loved both being a part of and witnessing the change. A great joy of mine is now mentoring young women as they break into this field through the Maestra organization in NYC.”
Laura is also glad to have witnessed change in parts of the Christian world as well. “Back in the day, the church world said, ‘yes but, you can only go this far.’ And yet at Metro Baptist, I served for five years as the Chair of Trustees.” She laughs, amazed even now at the progress.
Laura is now mentoring young Christian women and men, a role she takes seriously. “I love to talk to young people – they have so many opportunities available to them. I want to help them spiritually through all the paths they can choose to take.” To prepare her for more of this role, Laura recently became a Certified Spiritual Director and is excited to integrate that into her profession and faith lives.
Music has been a guiding force in Laura’s life and has informed many of her decisions and direction. She worked hard to make her skills marketable, but she recognizes that the skills themselves are gifts from God.
“Through music, I get to tell stories that make people think and teach them life lessons and make us empathize with those who suffer. What can be better than that? Music is what I’ve been gifted to do, and I do it well and I do it with joy. But, it is simply what I do. Who I am and how I live my life in front of my world, that’s what is the most important. I’m fortunate to get to work at what I love and have been gifted to do and now, that I get to share this journey with others. Always with a grateful heart to God.”
Christina Ray Stanton has written two books and dozens of articles that have appeared in publications all over the world. You can find her work at christinaraystanton.com.
A Little More About Metro Baptist:
Metro Baptist Church began meeting in 1974 in a space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In 1984, the congregation bought a turn-of-the-century Polish Catholic church located on 40th street in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, which had been utilized most recently as a drug treatment facility. This area is situated next to the massive Port Authority bus terminal and the entrance to the underground Lincoln Tunnel, along with abutting desolate railyards and parking garages. It’s inhabited by many who live on the margins of society. The church wanted to invest in the neighborhood since social justice was always a key foundational element of Metro. They have a three-tier approach to addressing local issues, by offering programs for children and youth, the homeless, and the hungry. The church, through its Rauschenbusch non-profit ministry (named after pastor and social justice trailblazer Walter Rauschenbusch), has a clothing closet and food pantry that provides for over 13,000 people each year. They offer camps and free after-school programs to children, and they even have a farm on the roof of the church, through which they grow food for the community. The church has been operating at its present location for four decades, and according to Pastor Tiffany Henkel, Metro’s pastor of 17 years, the church values “openness, creativity, and diversity.”