Vocal coach Ben Toth is also a player

As the old joke goes: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice.” That punch line would have to be rewritten for vocal coach, performer and composer Ben Toth. Toth, 34, got to Carnegie Hall — and the Hollywood Bowl and Broadway — by helping other people practice, practice and practice some more.

During a late November interview at a Los Feliz cafe, Toth — whose clients include Lea Michele, Taye Diggs, Josh Radnor, Wayne Brady, Christina Hendricks and Mandy Patinkin — was on a high from serving as musical director, arranger and backup singer for “Cheyenne Jackson’s Cocktail Hour: Music From the ‘Mad Men’ Era” at Carnegie Hall” on Nov. 18.

But there wasn’t much time to relax and enjoy: Toth was also coaching Beau Bridges for his Broadway singing debut in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Bridges is stepping in for John Larroquette as corporate tycoon J.B. Biggley in January, and Toth had been working with him for about six weeks, including bicoastal Skype sessions when Toth’s career took him to New York.


Bridges, whose latest film, “The Descendants,” is getting Oscar buzz, joins the cast Jan. 3, at the same time that Darren Criss replaces Daniel Radcliffe.

Toth met the actor in 2009 on a production of “Guys and Dolls” at the Hollywood Bowl. Bridges’ success in “Guys and Dolls” led to his being cast in “How to Succeed in Business.” Bridges, 70, has acted on Broadway before (“Where’s Daddy?,” “Who’s Who in Hell”), but this will be his first time singing on the Great White Way, and he wasn’t going to do it without Toth.

Gathering at Bridges’ home near Calabasas for their final coaching session, Toth played piano — the same piano Bridges used in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” the 1989 movie starring Bridges and his brother, Jeff, as struggling jazz pianists (Jeff also got to keep the piano he used). And Bridges, with an impromptu audience that included his boxer, Daisy, launched into Biggley’s passionate plea to skeptical secretary Hedy La Rue, “Love From a Heart of Gold.”

Toth occasionally piped in to prompt Bridges with Hedy’s lines — “Do you mean that?” — and to encourage Bridges to understand the lyrics before singing them.

“Just speak it and then we’ll add pitch,” Toth says. “Maybe she moves away from you here, so you give it a little more sound.” And at another point in the song, a wistful high note, Toth chimes in: “That’s it! That’s nice! Yeah, man — that’s good!”

During a rehearsal break, Bridges also seems pleased. At the Hollywood Bowl, he recalls, Toth “gave me the tools to do the best I could and gave me confidence and encouragement. I knew I had to get my act together before I went to New York to work with [‘How to Succeed’ music director and arranger] David Chase. So we embarked on this next journey.”

Bridges jokes that before the Hollywood Bowl, his stage musical experience consisted of one college production. But now, facing Broadway, he says: “Every day I get a little more confident. With every job I have, I go through a period of not knowing how I’m going to pull it off. Now I feel pretty ready.” Bridges adds that Toth has also been coaching him on his dance routines. “Singing is one thing, but singing while moving is another,” Bridges says.

Other stars are similarly enthusiastic about Toth’s low-key approach. Toth worked with Diggs to create the actor’s first one-man concert in Miami, and while the movie star has Broadway experience (“Rent”), he says: “I had reached the point when I was getting stage fright, it had been so long since I’d been onstage. He makes nonsingers sing like singers.”

Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) became familiar with Toth first as a composer, when Toth submitted one of his compositions in hopes of being chosen the composer on Radnor’s new movie, “Liberal Arts,” which will premiere at Sundance next month. Toth got the job. It was not until later that Radnor was invited to play the lead in a benefit concert of the musical “She Loves Me” for New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company. Musical director Paul Gemignani suggested a vocal coach for Radnor, who just happened to be Toth.

“Ben and I would meet up and spend 45 minutes talking about the movie … and then the rest of the time, we would sing,” Radnor says. “Singing can be very vulnerable, especially if you’re not doing it all the time. I felt very safe with him as a coach. And on top of it all, he wrote really gorgeous music for my movie.” For the benefit, Radnor won a rave from Playbill critic Kenneth Jones, who wrote, "… a musical comedy star was born.”

Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Toth reveled in being a musical theater geek in a town known for “sports and chicken wings.” He went on to Brown University and the Eastman School of Music, never quite able to decide whether to concentrate on performing, composing or coaching, so he did all three. After living full time in New York, he settled into Los Feliz in 2008.

There was a Cinderella story for Toth the performer in 2009, when he got an eleventh-hour call from London, saying that Patinkin’s pianist had been sidelined by an emergency appendectomy and asking Toth to come to the Duke of York’s Theatre to fill in. The music came by FedEx, Toth studied it on the plane, and two days later he was onstage accompanying Patinkin, who Toth said was unnervingly likely to change the program at a moment’s notice.

Still, Toth says he’s always enjoyed helping others realize their potential more than being in the spotlight. And the key to that, he says, is communicating that singing is about telling a story, not about vocal pyrotechnics. Toth believes that today’s singing competition shows such as “American Idol” are too quick to deem a powerful but inexperienced singer a “star.”

“That’s missing the point,” Toth says. “I teach them to speak on pitch. Yes, it’s also about the jaw and the larynx. But if you are not telling the story, you are not doing the job.”