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Austin Cook — the creative music force behind the productions at Chicago’s smaller stages

Associate music director conductor AustCook Writers Theatre Glencoe. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Associate music director and conductor Austin Cook at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

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Updated: May 29, 2014 4:09PM

Now you see Austin Cook. Now you don’t. But invariably you hear the magic he has devised for the many musicals now being produced on some of Chicago’s most intimate stages.

Sometimes, Cook — a music director, conductor, pianist and occasional singer and actor — is actually on stage, as he is now for the new Writers Theatre musical, “Days Like Today,” in which he plays Alan Schmuckler’s rippling score. And he was a formidable presence in Porchlight Music Theatre’s recent production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and last year’s American Blues Theatre production of “Hank Williams: Lonesome Highway,” in which he will reprise his role as a bass player when the show is remounted this summer. At other time Cook is the unseen magician, as in American Theater Company’s current fully environmental revival of “Hair,” in which he found a way to integrate the musicans as characters in the story, though he is not in the band himself.

“For me, what is most exciting is seeing the story come to life close-up,” said Cook, 26. “I love Broadway, but there is an epic, almost Hollywood nature to the way stories are presented there. When I work as musical director on a small stage, the first thing I say is: ‘Let’s take the dishonest factor out of it and just be real. Let’s tell the story, and play the music honestly.’ It’s like meeting a celebrity. When you’re up close you just see a real person.”

“‘Hair’ was one of the hardest, scariest pieces I’ve ever worked on,” Cook confessed. “There is really no book. So we thought a lot about how it was originally done Off Broadway, and the danger involved in what its creators were trying to do back in the 1960s, and we wanted the characters to actually be part of a ‘be-in.’ We stripped away the traditional orchestra element, and had the musicians seem to make music on the spot — working from an organic place, just as things happen when good musicians jam.”

In “Days Like Today,” for which Cook plays the piano, and served as associate music director alongside Doug Peck, the approach was the exact opposite to “Hair.”

“Doug is all about telling the story,” said Cook. “He also is a brilliant orchestrator, and here the orchestrations were being done from scratch. In additon, I tend to take more of a performer’s approach to things, using razzle-dazzle to showcase the music, and Doug always was quick to say, ‘Yes, but let’s not get in the way of the story. Let’s support the actor and have less obviously amazing music’.”

Cook, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., began piano lessons with his grandmother at the age of four. He attended Boston University, initially hoping to be a classical pianist and opera conductor. When his plans for moving to New York went awry, an opera singer friend in Chicago told him he had a room to rent, and he arrived here in 2009. His first gig was doing children’s musicals at the Theater Building. Then, another roommate, who was working at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in Rogers Park, told him about an opening there, and he got his first musical director’s job on director Fred Anzevino’s revue, “Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein.” He has been in demand ever since.

Next winter, Cook will be at the piano in Porchlight’s production of “Sondheim on Sondheim.” He would love to do more performing and use what is his natural bass voice.

“I’m a huge Maury Yeston fan and would love to do ‘Titanic,’ which is a prohibitively big and expensive musical stage. And I still dream of conducting an opera —ideally “Pagliacci” — with all the gorgeous music, but with real, rather than epic-sized acting.”

Note: For a list of musicals now playing on Chicago’s smaller stages, visit

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