Lawrence Goldberg grew up near New York City in a house filled with Broadway cast albums, but he didn’t dive into the world of musical theater until a murderous barber grabbed him.
“I didn’t get the theater bug too early,” he told The Chronicle, “but when I saw the TV ads for ‘Sweeney Todd’ running on Broadway, I just thought ‘Wow!’ ”
That barber never let go. Today, the 47-year-old Goldberg is a conductor and musical director who has worked on Broadway and national tours for the past 20 years — a career that will drop him in Pittsburgh next week to conduct the orchestra for “South Pacific,” which runs at the Benedum Center from Nov. 2 to 7.
“I’m happy to say that this is one show I’m involved with that will rank as being a great performance,” he said.
Goldberg grew up surrounded by Jewish music; his uncle, Michael Isaacson, is a prominent composer of Jewish synagogue music in the Reform movement.
“[Jewish music] enabled me to keep a foot in the door of Judaism,” said Goldberg, who would often read Torah and became an “amateur cantor.”
But it was Pittsburgh that set Goldberg on his path to Broadway. A Carnegie Mellon University student studying music, he worked on several shows in the school’s renowned theater program.
He soon fell into the right circle of people who started getting him work, he said, and by graduation was the music director for shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, City Theatre and summer performances at Hartwood Acres.
“I quickly became the go-to music director,” said Goldberg.
“I kept really busy.”
The burgeoning composer and conductor also landed on KDKA as the music director of the children’s show “Let’s Read a Book” from 1987 to 1990. But after spending much of the 1980s in Pittsburgh, Goldberg decided to move on.
“I knew in the back of my mind, eventually I’d need to get to New York,” he said. “That’s where musical theater was happening on a bigger scale. Working in Pittsburgh was not going to sustain my career.”
As Goldberg now returns occasionally on tour — he was here last conducting “The Producers” at the Benedum in 2005 — he described Pittsburgh as “a good training ground, where I cut my teeth in this business.”
When Goldberg was hired to conduct a production of “Chess” in 1990, he realized the time to move on had arrived.
“I gave up my apartment in Pittsburgh,” he said, “and ended up never coming back.”
Finally in New York, Goldberg could hone his skills as a conductor.
“You need a sense of how music pays off emotionally for people so you shape it that way, especially with regard to dramatic story,” he said. “You need to bring an innate sense of how to inspire musicians to feel the music the way you feel it.”
Luckily for Goldberg’s conducting, he’s a musician as well, able to understand how it feels both in the orchestra and leading it (though he personally believes he belongs out front).
“I’ve been a pianist my whole life, but I’m not as technically proficient as many are. It doesn’t come as naturally to me,” said Goldberg. “But I’m able to see the big picture in music, able to shape the music that others are performing.”
Like most forms of art, conducting is all about communication, said Goldberg.
“If you feel the power of the music, but don’t communicate it to your players, that won’t work,” he said. “You can’t just keep the beat.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)