Broadway’s hit musical comedy “Mr. Saturday Night” wrapped up last fall after a 5-month run. Among the musicians performing the show’s Tony-nominated score – written by three-time Tony award winner Jason Robert Brown – was Jesse-Ray Leich, a drummer, percussionist, and former recipient of a Kingston Chamber Music Festival (KCMF) scholarship. Although this was his Broadway debut, Leich quickly established himself as a distinguished newcomer on the scene: he performed on the Today Show and at the 75th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, and he played drums for the “Mr. Saturday Night” Broadway Cast Album that has since been nominated for a Grammy award. “These were things I’d dream about as a young drummer growing up in North Kingstown, Rhode Island,” he says. “Anything is possible if you reach for it.”
“Everything is connected”
The story of “small town kid moves to a big city hoping to find success” might sound like a plot line from your favorite movie, but in Leich’s life it has become reality thanks to two key things: Establishing a solid reputation and actively fostering a support network. “When I started touring with musical productions in 2017, I was very new to the industry and didn’t know anybody in NYC,” he says. “As I started working on shows and got to know fellow musicians, actors, and crew members, I was fortunate to create meaningful friendships and connections that have benefited my life both personally and professionally.” These connections have become a highlight for Leich as he navigates both the artistic and business dynamics of being a freelance musician. “Something surprising about pursuing professional musicianship has been realizing how small the industry really is,” he adds. “Everything is connected, and your reputation spreads around the community quickly. That’s why it is imperative to build a positive community of musicians and other artists around you that makes working together enjoyable. That’s when magic truly happens!”
Leich’s journey to Broadway can be credited in part with his mother’s enthusiasm for getting him started on drum lessons at a young age – although, at age four, he was turned away from several music studios for being too young. She finally found him a teacher in Cranston, beginning a musical trajectory that quickly became about more than drum lessons. “I value the arts and music’s ability to help us heal and to use as a form of escapism,” he says. “There is so much happening in the world that is overwhelming, depressing, and quite scary on a day-to-day basis – especially living in a place like New York City. I find peace in the chaos of the city when I throw on my headphones and escape into whatever music I’m enjoying that particular day. And when I have the chance to be an audience member and enjoy a show – whether that be a Broadway musical or a rock concert – I find peace in the joy of live art, expression, and celebrating those beautiful moments. I’m honored to be a professional musician because I get to be a small part of thousands of people’s ‘escapism.’ I get to help bring joy to someone who might be struggling in their day-to-day lives, let them forget about everything for two and a half hours and have a wonderful time.”
Before becoming a musician in NYC, Leich graduated from the University of Rhode Island (URI) in 2017 with a degree in Music Education. In 2016, he received a scholarship from KCMF to support his studies. “The scholarship from KCMF helped me immensely in continuing my education at URI,” he says. “I am extremely grateful for organizations such as KCMF throughout Rhode Island because they help shape musicians who truly want to pursue music as a career. I know I would not be where I am today without my music teachers, mentors, and the various ensembles and organizations I was a part of such as KCMF.” The career he sought to establish as a college student now looks bright: after the close of “Mr. Saturday Night,” he played drums for the new musical “KPOP” on Broadway, which featured an original score by Helen Park. Since then, he has been regularly subbing the drum chair for the new hit Broadway show “& Juliet,” as well as for “Titanique” Off-Broadway.
As for young musicians and students in the state who want to pursue a path similar to his, Leich has this advice: “Incredible artists, musicians, innovators, and athletes are coming from Rhode Island. I hope that young aspiring musicians who read this find comfort in knowing that just because you are from the smallest state in the country, it doesn’t mean your talent and hard work won’t take you around the world. Be persistent, stay grounded, and never forget your roots.”