Rockin' on Broadway
Dena Tauriello spent 20 years touring the world in the all-female rock band Antigone Rising. The New Jersey native stays closer to home in her latest gig: playing drums in the Broadway production of Hamilton.
When Dena Tauriello moved into a new building in West New York, N.J., last year, she was offered the choice between two apartments: a larger one with less closet space, or a smaller one with more closet space. She immediately picked the latter. Tauriello ’90 H&HD knew as soon as she saw it that the large bedroom closet could double as a rehearsal space, a place to set up her 1967 Slingerland silver sparkle drum set and practice—quietly, of course—for the big gig coming her way: Since February, Tauriello has been one of six rotating drummers filling in for Andrés Forero, the Tony, Emmy, and Grammy award-winning percussionist who’s held the Hamilton drum chair since the show’s debut.
It’s par for the course for Broadway and off-Broadway pit musicians to find substitutes for their chairs in case of illness or injury, or if they take time off for other gigs. Forero himself tapped Tauriello for Hamilton based on her impressive résumé, which includes 20 years as a rock drummer and four on Broadway, where she’s been drum chair for the musicals Head Over Heels and For the Girls. Tauriello is currently drum chair for the off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors, which received a 2021 Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater Album, but she says drumming for Hamilton is the most exciting gig of her career to date—and one of the most challenging. She calls Hamilton a “beast of a show,” an intense, 50-song, nearly-three-hour marathon in which the drum part is both complex and critical from start to finish. Filling in for Forero, as a sub is expected to, is daunting on its own: His drumming, Tauriello says, is “incredible, distinctive, and unique.”
The Hamilton gig means a great deal to Tauriello. She is the first woman to sit in the show’s drum chair, and one of only a sprinkling of female percussionists playing in Broadway pit orchestras. “The music world at large is still a boys’ club,” Tauriello says, “and on Broadway, you’ll see very few chairs held by females, particularly drum chairs.”
In the months leading up to her Hamilton debut in February, Tauriello put in hours and hours of practice, splitting her time between her north Jersey closet-studio and a house she owns in Manahawkin, N.J., where she keeps a much larger drum set. She pored over the Hamilton score to get totally comfortable with it, and studied videos of the orchestra’s conductor to familiarize herself with his cues. Unable to practice on Forero’s drumkit—which has nine actual drums, including a smaller-than-usual field drum, a snare drum that’s deeper than most snare drums, a 12-inch, tightly tuned popcorn drum, as well as a Latin Timbale drum and a nine-part electronic drum pad—Tauriello closely watched his videos over and over again to do her best to mimic his drum rolls, his fills, and his strokes. She observed his stylistic peculiarities, wrote them down, and then practiced some more to acquire the dexterity, agility, and sleight of hand required to master what she describes as a “unique choreography” on the instrument.
Her efforts paid off. Nerves aside, her first night in the Hamilton pit went off without a hitch.
Tauriello started drumming when she was 8 years old, inspired by her “idol,” Karen Carpenter, a skilled drummer best known as the vocalist in the ’70s sibling duo The Carpenters, who she first saw in concert when she was in first grade. “I can still remember looking up at the stage thinking, ‘I want to do that. That’s what I want to do,’” she says.
Watching Tauriello hit pots and pans with chopsticks on the living room floor, playing along to the songs of Cass Elliot and Neil Diamond, her parents decided she was serious. They found Tauriello a teacher, signed her up for lessons, and bought her the Slingerland drum set that’s in her West New York closet. Growing up, she played in school bands and in local garage bands; she got her first paid gig at 13, earning the princely sum of $32. She took a break from music while at Penn State, where she majored in human development and family studies and was a four-year starter on the Nittany Lion softball team, but came back to it a year after graduation: In 1991, a neighbor who was also a pianist tapped Tauriello to play the drums for a production of the musical Dames at Sea in a community theater production in Rockaway, N.J.
She built her reputation as a solid player, and not long after, Tauriello entered the rock world as drummer for Good Girls Don’t, a popular Jersey Shore cover band. That gig led her to the all-female rock band Antigone Rising, founded by sisters Kristen and Cathy Henderson, which she joined in 1998. The band made a name writing and recording its own songs; its 2005 album From the Ground Up was produced by multiple-Grammy-winning Neil Dorfsman.
During Tauriello’s 20-year tenure as drummer with Antigone Rising, the band toured widely, playing over 260 shows a year and opening for some of the biggest groups in rock music history, including The Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, and Aerosmith. She calls the experience “intense and insane,” and full of exhilarating moments. “On the Allman Brothers tour, Greg [Allman] actually came up on stage and played the Hammond B3 organ with us on one of our songs—it was awesome,” Tauriello says.
Being in the rock scene was also deeply rewarding musically—all the more given Antigone Rising’s all-woman lineup. “We’d get comments like, ‘What are you guys, Josie and the Pussycats?” Tauriello recalls. “We had to always prove ourselves, work twice as hard as the men. Because I’m a female drummer, I’d often be asked things like, ‘How much do you bench press?’ So when we finished a great show where we totally rocked the house, we felt incredible.”
Antigone Rising also shared the stage with The Bangles, Joan Jett, Cheap Trick, and Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas, which led to co-writing a song with him. The band played at Lilith Fair in the summer of 1998 and was invited by the U.S. State Department to play international gigs as cultural ambassadors; they played in the Middle East in 2012 and Vietnam in 2015. Tauriello has also performed live with The Go-Go’s, Roseanne Cash, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Anita Cochran, among others.
While she loved being in the band and part of the rock scene, Tauriello had always wanted to try different genres of music. Broadway was at the top of her list, she says, because she’d grown up going to shows with her mother, who loved musical theater. That opportunity came her way in 2018, thanks to a recommendation from drummer Sammy Merendino, who at the time was the drum chair for Cindy Lauper’s Kinky Boots. It was a chance to audition for the drum chair for Head Over Heels. Tauriello went for it.
“When we were on the road, staying up late as we drove from city to city, Dena would sing entire Broadway scores,” recalls Kristen Henderson, Antigone Rising’s current drummer, who’s also played rhythm guitar and bass for the band. “Her love for Broadway is gigantic.”
Head Over Heels, which featured the music of the iconic all-woman new wave band The Go-Go’s, was a great fit for Tauriello given her rock background. But Henderson says Tauriello has the requisite skills to play any Broadway score: “To transition from rock to Broadway was totally natural for her because her technique is perfect and her drumming is so precise. She plays in perfect time and she will always deliver.”
The endurance and energy Tauriello acquired in 20 years of rock drumming have proven invaluable on Broadway.
“Hamilton is a very athletic book, and a drummer needs a lot of strength to get through the show,” says Forero. “There are wonderful drummers out there, but many are not cut out for this show. I’ve seen Dena play in multiple situations; I knew her work ethic was spotless. I knew that I could count on her, that she is proficient with different styles of music and with electronics. And being a rock musician, she has the stamina required to play for three hours.”
Tauriello is now almost as comfortable with Hamilton as she is with Little Shop (she has substitutes drumming in her place when she’s in the Hamilton pit, but she practices diligently to maintain the fluency she’s acquired, to refine her playing, and because even in live musical theater, there’s always a possibility that something can go awry).
“You never know when there’s a glitch that can hold up production, or there’s a lighting cue that doesn’t happen,” she says. “Once in Hamilton, one of the built-in sound effects didn’t happen the way it was supposed to, and the music director had to get on the microphone and have me do something that isn’t in my music. As I was playing, he was saying, ‘Dena, when you get to measure 26, can you give me time on the hi-hat,’ and I just had to go with it, trusting my intuition and my experience.”
Tauriello would like to sub for more Broadway shows; she enjoys the diversity of the music and being able to use her drum skills in different ways. Over the summer, she learned the scores for Beetlejuice and Six, the latter a Tony-nominated musical focused on an all-female band, that plays onstage for the duration of the show, and she is now subbing in both shows. And Tauriello is set for a weeklong gig as guest drummer with the 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Myers beginning Oct. 31.
Even though she’s no longer a regular on that circuit, rock remains her first love. She plays with Antigone Rising whenever possible, including a number of gigs with the band last summer. One of those came in June, at the band’s annual Girls Rising concert in Glencove, N.Y., which showcases established female musicians and encourages aspiring artists. The concert benefits the nonprofit organization of the same name that the band set up shortly after they returned from their Middle East tour; it aims to empower and inspire girls and LGBTQ+ kids to pursue careers in music and other traditionally male-dominated fields.
This year’s concert headliners included Shawn Colvin, Lisa Loeb, and Judith Hill—musicians that Tauriello knows well. She has her own wish list, too, of artists she’d love to hop on a tour bus with. Mary Chapin Carpenter is high on that list. And no matter what she may be doing, she would never say no if Pat Benatar were to call.