Daniel Faltus is employed for less than three months out of the year as the musical director of the fall musical and he’s not on annual payroll, but he has an Harvard-Westlake School ID card. He uses it to buy food at the cafeteria before heading off to the Drama Lab during seventh and eighth periods to rehearse with cast members of the current musical production. This rehearsal time is not part of the formal production. It is something that Faltus, or “Default” as students refer to him, offers to any cast member who wants to brush up on vocal parts before the full cast is called that afternoon for another three hours of rehearsal.
“I’m here because I love the kids so much,” Faltus said. “I’m such a music theatre junkie that I will pretty much come here as long as I’m asked to come here.”
Faltus started playing piano at age 9, late for any serious musician, he said.
He pursued further education in piano at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and the University of Illinois where he received a bachelor’s degree in piano with a minor in organ. He moved to New York soon after graduating.
In New York, he took up acting lessons at HB Studios while playing piano during voice lessons for opera singers.
The acting panned out, and he joined the national touring company of the play “Master Class” with Academy Award-winning actress Faye Dunaway.
“Dunaway, during our tours, would say that someday she would have me teach her to sing,” Faltus said. “Which is like saying one of these days I’m going to have you teach me to play piano, or I’m going to have you teach me to do brain surgery.”
The tour ended with six weeks in Los Angeles, where, upon the insistence of a friend, Faltus decided to move after finishing the tour.
Three days after his arrival, the Los Angeles Opera offered him a job.
“It was for some teachers who didn’t really know anything about opera,” Faltus said.“They wanted me to bring five well-known operatic pieces and help each one of these groups of teachers write a 90 second opera. And we had two hours to do it.”
Faltus is now one of the musical directors with the L.A. Opera, where he mainly does outreach and teaching performances, a role that he prefers over helping with main stage productions, he said.
“I’m not the guy who sits and plays rehearsals all day,” Faltus said. “I admire those people greatly, but that’s not for me because that’s not a good use of my time. If my options are writing concerts and giving them to the public versus sitting at a piano and playing Don Giovanni for eight hours for four weeks, it’s a clear choice.”
Faltus had small acting roles in shows like “Monk” and “Even Stevens.” The “Even Stevens” role, where he played Shia LaBeouf’s character’s butler Chives, is a running fascination among cast members.
“The funny thing about the ‘Even Stevens’ thing is that it comes back to haunt me every year at this school,” Faltus said. “Somebody says, ‘Aren’t you the guy?’ and then they start passing the video around.”
Faltus was first hired at Harvard-Westlake as a piano player for the upper school production of “Brigadoon” in 1998. Performing arts department head Mark Hilt hired him when the student pianist for the show backed out the day before performances started.
“I’d never heard from Harvard-Westlake before that,” Faltus said. “And so I came over [to Harvard-Westlake], I grabbed the music, I went home, I learned it, I came back here at six o clock, and that’s how I started.”
Hilt knew Faltus through mutual friends in the opera world. They had also both attended USIC at the same time, but didn’t know each other then.
It’s hard to find somebody who works well with kids of high school age, Hilt said.
“First of all the person has to be able to relate, so it’s not exactly a professional gig -it’s a professional educational gig,” Hilt said. “So you have to have someone who can relate to the students well. And the students just adore him. He’s great to work with, he’s hilarious, but he can get the product done too.”
After “Brigadoon,” Faltus was hired a couple of times as a rehearsal pianist for upper school productions. The first show he was the musical director of was the middle school production of “Oklahoma.” He later came to the Upper School when it became apparent that it was too much of a balancing act for a full time staff member to be the musical director.
There is a general adoration of Faltus amongst the students who work with him. There’s a lot of joking and sarcasm in rehearsals, but it’s coupled with a good deal of hard work, Angus O’Brien ’14 said.
“I love Mr. Faltus because he brings the most elegant balance of sassiness, humor and professionalism to rehearsal,” O’Brien, who has worked with Faltus in the last two upper school musicals “Oklahoma” and “Hairspray,” said. “He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and especially with shows as big as ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Hairspray,’ there’s no room to sugarcoat how rehearsal is going. So if we’re doing something poorly and we need to speed it up, he’ll just tell us and he won’t hold back. And that’s needed for a musical director in a high school production.”
It’s a mutual affection, Faltus said.
“The reason I fit in so well here is because I finally found my peer group,” Faltus said.
Though he continues to work as a musical director for the LA Opera as well as for Harvard-Westlake, Faltus says that he will always maintain his love and practice of piano.
“To really be a musician, is to keep working at it, and to keep exploring it,” he said. “I heard [Laurence] Olivier say once how he wanted to be remembered, and that was as a workman. I thought that was brilliant. Because if you just keep at it, and keep trying to do better, then what else is there?”