Manchester native still shocked at his Tony Award nomination

New Hampshire Union Leader |
May 11. 2013 10:21PM

Ethan Popp 

MANCHESTER - New Hampshire native Ethan Popp wasn't expecting to hear through the grapevine or any other source that his work on "Motown The Musical" would lead to one of the highest honors in the world of theater.

A string of text messages saying "Congrats!" "Amazing!" confused Popp until he went online to see what prompted incessant buzzing from his cellphone. It was the morning of April 30, just after the Tony Award nominations were announced.

"It took me a minute. I had no idea what it was for," said Popp, a 1995 graduate of Sunapee High School.

Popp, in the middle of an interview at the time, interrupted it briefly and learned that he and "Motown" co-orchestrator Bryan Crook were nominated in the category of Best Orchestrations.

"I have to tell you it completely destroyed the rest of the interview. I couldn't put together a coherent sentence," said Popp, who nearly two weeks later was still beaming at the unexpected news.

The awards ceremony is June 9 in New York, where Popp and his wife, Vanessa, recently got together with some friends to celebrate the early success of "Motown" and the bonus of being a Tony nominee at age 35.

"A friend pulled me aside and said, 'No matter what happens, for the rest of your life you're always going to have a title now.'?" Popp said.

"Motown" is based on the story of Berry Gordy Jr., who founded the Detroit record label that grew to be an icon in the era of music. Part of Popp's job as musical supervisor was working with Gordy to narrow the very long list of Motown hits and select the songs for the show. They pared it down to 72.

"My parents are huge fans," Popp said. "They told me I was going to be in trouble if 'My Girl' doesn't make the show."

The classic by the Temptations most certainly made the cut, along with hits from Motown legends such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and the Jackson Five.

"You could make a full-length musical out of any one of those acts," Popp said. "So many great artists on the label that it was difficult to say how do we show the best of each of them."

Popp, who was born in Manchester, started playing piano when he was 5 and progressed to other instruments. He played bass for bands in high school and during his years studying music at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He was in search of a summer job and considered painting houses before accepting an offer from Seacoast Repertory Theatre to direct the music in a production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

"I realized that I sort of had this great passion for theater and to bring music into theater," he said.

Popp left UNH for New York where, after two years of working temporary jobs, he got an in on Broadway and began working his way up through various tours and musicals. He said he never really thought about a Tony until he saw his name on the nominations list.


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