Michael McGushin

By Scott MacClelland

The fact that Mickey McGushin is both stage- and music-directing the current Cabrillo Stage production of Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together will come as no surprise to fans of the company’s summer productions. Indeed, they will be most headshot (a) 2014delighted.

McGushin, named after Mickey Mantle by his sports loving (and teaching) father but who takes the more formal Michael as his professional name, is a Cabrillo College music professor and UC Santa Cruz vocal coach and accompanist. He has long been associated with the university’s opera program and with Shakespeare Santa Cruz. He is well known in the Santa Cruz area as a pianist, composer, and conductor. He leads the Cabrillo Westside Community Choir and just stepped down after a long tenure as music director for the 16-member Ariose Singers.

McGushin has been a major player on the Cabrillo Stage for 30 seasons. He has music-directed Anything Goes, The Last Five Years, Cabaret, Little Shop of Horrors, The Fantasticks and The Music Man. He has served in that capacity for other company productions of The Threepenny Opera, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, A…My Name is Alice and Oh Coward!. (He’ll return as music director for Cabrillo’s Urinetown, the musical comedy, in January—even though the subject, a severe drought, may not seem so funny then.)

A San Jose native, the 8-year-old’s family relocated to Watsonville when his father took up the job of sports instructor at a private Catholic high school there. He befriended a girl of the same age whose mother was a piano teacher. He knew he wanted to learn to play. The following year the school closed which put the family into a precarious financial situation. “My parents finally told me we’ll let you have a piano lesson,” he said. Returning home that day he was thrilled to find a piano. The family had bought it for $10 from the now defunct school. Mickey’s life in music was assured.

Years later he chose the University of the Pacific in Stockton. “My parents had just gone through a difficult divorce and I needed to be closer to my mom,” he explains. Moreover, UOP offered a good music program. He studied with Stanworth Beckler, Ron Caviani and H. Owen Reed and secured a degree in composition. He flirted briefly with the oboe but decided, “why play something badly when I play the piano pretty well.” Back home he had the “amazing opportunity” to work with Lou Harrison and immerse himself in that world as an ongoing member of Phil Collins’ New Music Works ensemble.

Very close to his mother, her death a couple of years ago propelled McGushin back into his passion for composing and inspired a string quartet whose two interior movements were premiered to enthusiastic acclaim last spring at a New Music Works concert. (He’s presently composing the two outer movements of what is “the largest piece I’ve ever worked on.”) He is also keen to compose other chamber music and works for small ensembles. “I love thinking about individual performers and what they can do.”

But like many musicians, earning a paycheck often takes priority. Musical theater and teaching provide, but composing often takes the back seat. “I would love to compose an opera,” he says. And he’s “intrigued” with the idea of writing music for dance.
Meanwhile, most of his music involves solo singers and choruses, “things that involve the human voice.” He has composed various song cycles, which are only slightly away from another passion: musical theater. “I’m so enamored of Sondheim!”

The legendary Tom Lehrer asked McGushin to play auditions for his course on musical theater at Cowell College (UCSC) because, Lehrer confessed, he found playing Sondheim too difficult. A suggestion from a friend led Lehrer to propose the creation of Shakespeare Deconstructed, “an irreverent revue”, with songs and readings. As musical director McGushin, with Irene Herrmann, accompanied the musical portions. Susan Morgenstern directed and the actors were stars of Cabrillo musicals. A laugh-out-loud one-off, it was presented last February in the dining commons of Stevenson College, on campus.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there.