Locals: Pam Phillips
Interview by Lila Edythe
Photo by Kathryn Ziesig
JAZZ PIANIST PAM Phillips’s career in musical theater started in 1977 with an audition in Chicago for Stephen Sondheim’s show Side by Side. Phillips, a Chicago native and a recent grad of the Cincinnati Conservatory, auditioned for Sondheim himself. She was hired within hours of her audition and played Side by Side by Sondheim at the Drury Lane Theatre until the show closed. Then she was hired to play A Chorus Line at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre. Next came Godspell at McCormick Place and then, with her late husband Keith, who was also a pianist, Evita. She played piano in the Nelson Riddle Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago; Ella Fitzgerald was the vocalist. “I got to accompany my favorite jazz singer!” Phillips says. In 1984 the Phillipses moved to New York City and, for 12 years, Pam played and conducted Broadway and off Broadway shows there. And then in 1996, the couple went in a totally different direction: West, to Jackson Hole. Phillips had worked at a bar here in the 1970s and says, “I always wanted to come back.” She and Keith arrived here with their then-five-year-old son Andy. “As long as we could play music and make a living, we figured we could stay,” she says.
Q: Was there a point when you didn’t think you’d be able to stay?
PP: In the beginning, it took three jobs each, but we were able to cobble together a living.
Q: What were the three jobs?
PP: Both Keith and I taught piano, had church gigs, and played club and jazz gigs.
Q: Do you remember your first gig here?
PP: In the beginning, Keith got called for all the gigs and I got called to teach. We got here at the end of April and it was August before I got a playing gig. It was at The Wort—a jazz trio, with me singing and playing piano. There were some ’60s and ’70s pop standards thrown into the mix.
Q: Do you have a favorite place to play here?
PP: Spring Creek put a baby grand piano into the Granary for us 20-some years ago and we’ve been playing there ever since. That is my baby. I love that gig. I can play anything I want and there are people who are regular summer visitors who come up year after year. It is a delight and blessing to have such a supportive, steady venue in which to play.
Q: Do you think your students appreciated/ understood they had a teacher who had played/conducted Tony-winning musicals?
PP: I tried to remind them as much as I could! Seriously, piano study is all about practice. I would try and make it fun by giving them Broadway and pop music. I think they all knew I had worked professionally. I tried to emphasize the importance to keep practicing at it.
Q: Did you teach piano in NYC?
PP: No. It was something we needed to do in Jackson to make ends meet. Also, it was important for inclusion in the community.
Q: You co-wrote a musical that celebrates Jackson Hole. How did you pick the subject matter?
PP: Mary [Murfitt] and I wrote Petticoat Rules together. I love the local history. In 1920, Jackson became the first town in the U.S. to have an all female town council. The plot involves the friendship between Rose Crabtree, one of the town council members, and Cissy Patterson, the flamboyant owner of the Washington Star newspaper and a big society woman from Washington D.C. who came to the Bar BC, a local dude ranch, to recover from her divorce from a Polish Count.
Q: Petticoat Rules first played in the early ’00s and was revived at the Center for the Arts in 2011. With the centennial of those women being elected coming up is a return performance on tap??
PP: There is a good chance it will be performed at the Grand Teton Music Festival in the summer of 2020.
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