American Pops Orchestra founder Luke Frazier talks with Watermark ahead of his ‘Broadway’s Brightest Lights’ concert

(Photo from WUCF TV)

“Broadway’s Brightest Lights” will shine a spotlight on some of the best and brightest talents of today when it closes out the University of Central Florida’s 2023 UCF Celebrates the Arts festival at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts April 15.

Curated and conducted by Luke Frazier, the evening features brand new arrangements performed by The American Pops Orchestra and features Megan Hilty, Michael Maliakel, Nikki Renée Daniels and Luke Hawkins performing some of the greatest showtunes of all time, from Golden Age classics to today’s hits direct from the stages of Broadway. This one-night-only event will be recorded and broadcast on PBS later this year.

Ahead of Saturday’s performance, Watermark spoke with Frazier over the phone about the show, why he founded the APO and much more.

WATERMARK: You are coming to Orlando for Broadway’s Brightest Lights, and you are bringing some very talented performers with you. What can you tell us about the show?

LUKE FRAZIER: I was trying to create a show that would represent a lot of different styles of Broadway. There’s so many Broadway highlight shows, we’ve all seen them, we’ve all been there, we’ve all heard it. For me, I love shaking things up, so with this show what I’ve done is I’ve given the singers pieces that they normally wouldn’t be singing and roles they definitely haven’t played on Broadway. Now, they’re going to sing some of the things they’ve sung on Broadway, but to be honest, the majority of the show is actually things they’ve not performed on Broadway but are iconic songs.

When you are putting a show like this together, do you select the music first then reach out to performers that you think will work well within the show or is it the other way around?

Whatever show I do, I always customize every song to whatever singer I’m working with, I’m really adamant about that, because we’ve all been to shows where maybe that wasn’t the right piece for that person but it was just part of the show so they had them do it. I never do that. It’s always very closely worked on together with the singer. So, for me it’s a mixture of both. Sometimes I say I’d really like to have this piece in the show and then I figure out from the cast who can sing it and mix it up that way.

For instance, Michael Maliakel is doing an arrangement of a piece from “Bells are Ringing,” he’s doing a version of a song that was made famous by a female singer in the 1950s but I changed the key and moved it so he could sing it. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. It would’ve been much easier for me to leave it in the female key and give it to one of the female singers, but I thought this is actually going to sound great in his voice. So, I shift things around and it really just is that it evolves and each show is different and unique.

As you sat down to put this show together, what made you want to reach out to these four performers?

I think that it was such an interesting cross-section of experience and performance style. They all do very different things and that’s something else I really believe in, is that I love when I put together a show that I have somebody for all different types of audience members and really that’s what drives it. For me, it’s thinking about my audience. Who’s going to be watching? Who’s going to be listening? And saying what’s going to be able to reach and touch and connect with the broadest audience? When you think about these four performers, they come from different life experiences, they come from different performance experiences and four very distinct talents. So it’s, again, it’s always trying to put together a show that’s going to be very unique.

You founded the American Pop Orchestra in 2015. What led you to create it?

I wanted to create an orchestra that was really audience-focused and by that I mean everything I create with them, and all the players, we know that we are there to create shows that are connecting with people and moving people. It’s a very different approach to running an orchestra or starting an orchestra. The kind of historic, standard model is you create a group and then you put on programs, and you hope people find you and for me, I really like to think about my community, my audiences first and then create programming with these players because they’re exceptional players. They come from mostly the D.C. area, but I also have players that come in from all over the country to play with my group. It’s very thoughtful and purposeful how we do everything that we do.

Broadway’s Brightest Lights is closing out the University of Central Florida’s Celebration of the Arts. It’s a two-week festival showcasing creativity and passion for the arts. I wondered if you would speak on the importance of arts in schools — particularly for LGBTQ kids — and what kind of impact the arts had on you growing up.

As a member of [the LGBTQ+] community, arts were essential for me. Oftentimes, it was one of the only places where I felt like I could just completely feel free to be myself in that I could experience my emotions deeply and I could explore all different cultures and all different styles of life and living. For me, the arts were a critical refuge in my life and I had wonderful public school teachers. I went entirely to public school and even went to state universities for my bachelor’s and graduate degrees. So, if we don’t support education, a solid, diverse, engaging arts curriculum, then we’re not doing our jobs.

And by the way, we can’t just rely on public schools to provide that education. I believe it’s the job of every professional arts organization to get involved, even more now than ever. It’s a time when funding is at risk for the arts — that’s been an age-old phenomenon — but we have not seen a correlation as funding declines for arts in public education of an increase from outside arts sources. I will say that my group, that’s something we heavily increase every year, our funding for arts outreach and arts education.

In fact, three weeks a year, we do live and virtual touring, we’ve been in all 50 states. We reach over 100,000 students every week we go on tour. We’re only an eight-year-old organization so my challenge and my focus, my passion, is to get other arts organizations to think more creatively of how we can broaden our reach, make our depth much further. In the age of so much wonderful technology, there’s no excuse why every arts organization can’t be a national arts education organization.

I just keep waving that flag because it was important to me and I can’t help but there are many kids out there who may be in difficult situations for any number of reasons. Maybe they are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, maybe they have a very difficult home life, maybe they have food insecurity, maybe they don’t have adequate shelter and maybe that one time during choir or band or they see a live show, they feel that, even just for a moment, they can escape what they’re dealing with and they can find a place that’s safe and warm and welcome.

This show is also a celebration of our local PBS station, WUCF. What is your relationship with PBS and how did you get involved with them?

I grew up in West Virginia, now I loved my state, I’m proud of my state, but it’s no mystery that there aren’t as many professional arts organizations there. Often my exposure to professional artmaking or creation was via public television. I watched PBS ever since I can remember.

For me, right at the top of COVID, I knew there was a way to keep creating art and we didn’t just have to do Zoom performances and we didn’t only have to have one person at a time in a room. I consulted with doctors and health experts and followed every code and protocol and I decided we were going to actually put on a concert with my players, together outdoors, safe and, in those days, you were spaced and wearing masks outdoors. We took every precaution and PBS got word that I was still doing new programming and the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation contacted me. And would you believe it, in August 2020, we filmed our first orchestra television show and that has led us to this show in Florida, I believe it will be our 18th or 19th show on PBS since 2020. After we film this show in Florida, we film our next one for PBS back in Washington and then a month after that, we film another one for PBS and it just keeps going. And they’re all different.

What’s been so special, it goes back to my upbringing and my roots and my background, and even to your point about education, the reality is so many arts organizations are struggling and have been struggling and we continue to face challenges and again, art schools are struggling, and I think PBS is the perfect vehicle to provide very quality, very diverse programming content.

One thing you’ll find about the American Pops Orchestra and my style is every one of these shows looks and feels totally different. We never film in the same place twice, so every one is in a different venue with different casts and different repertoire. We dress differently, we do different stages, we do different cities and again, I’m trying to honor the mission of PBS by reaching more of our country in all of the programming I do. It’s a fun challenge and it comes from my commitment, where I grew up, not having as much access to creating those different points.

But I will say, this is my first TV filming in Florida, it’s my Florida filming debut. I’ve done a lot of work in Florida but I’ve never filmed there so it’s pretty exciting.

Is there added pressure for you if you know that it’s going to be filmed and aired on TV?

Not anymore. When I first started doing it, it was nerve wracking but nowadays, I’m so used to it. I don’t get nervous about it or get anxious about it because I know my music, I know my artists and I love my ensemble and hopefully the audiences that come out will see how much I enjoy communicating and connecting with them, so I don’t really get anxious about it anymore.

I’m a big movie nerd and whenever I do interviews and I’ve seen a film that involves the subject or topic of the person I’m chatting with, I like to get their opinion on that film. So I wanted to ask if you’ve seen “Tár” and if so what did you think?

I have watched it. You know, it’s interesting, the conductor’s career path is something that is so foreign to so many people and I will say that I think there was a lot of truth in that film for sure. I think that one of the takeaways that I wish more people got from that is actually how we just need to fundamentally change how orchestras operate, in my opinion. I think we need to fundamentally change how we approach orchestras.

For me, I found many times in the film that it glorified the kind of majesty of certain ensembles. You’re not successful, in fact it was almost a kind of slap in the face, if you’re not conducting a certain type of ensemble then you’re not really successful or you’ve not made it and you should be working your whole life to get the chance to work with certain groups in this world.

Obviously, the many issues that were brought up that are still happening in our industry of sexism and certainly racism, I mean go through the list of terrible things that that movie rightfully highlighted, but I think the biggest takeaway that wasn’t talked about as much is that saying that some ensembles or some experiences aren’t worth as much as others and it was a demotion for her to be conducting some things after being at this storied institution.

I think that was very interesting and unfortunately defeats the narrative that certain kinds of art and certain ensembles, I’m doing air quotes, are better than others or of more artistic merit than others, and I don’t fundamentally believe that. In fact, I vehemently disagree because so often, groups like that start becoming performance ensembles in a void and have no connection to their community or the broader community. It’s really just a museum piece at that point, and unfortunately, our industry is created around preserving those museum pieces instead of connecting with people which, by the way long answer to say, is why I think audiences are declining.

It’s interesting that you say that because I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine who asked me what my plan was passed Watermark. As if I wasn’t as driven as other journalists because I wasn’t aspiring to be at the New York Times or something like that.

This is 100% what I’m talking about and the issue is we have an entire industry, we have an entire education system, that promotes this journey. That’s kind of why APO does what it does and we’re very unique in that. In eight years, we’ve had more TV programs than any other orchestra, national TV programs I should say, than any other orchestra in the country, but no one would go to another conductor and say, “Oh, are you trying to conduct APO?” The question is instead Chicago or Cleveland. We’re just trying to connect to our audiences. We’re trying to bring more people into this world that we love. By the way, we also were the first orchestra to have an LGBTQ+ special on PBS, which just happened last June.

You have worked with a lot of talented performers, some very legendary performers, so I wanted to ask, who haven’t you worked with yet that you are chomping at the bit to get on stage with?

I really would like to work with Reba, at some point. I’d love to work with Drake, at some point. As far as in the classical world, I’m getting ready to work with Renée Fleming again, who I just adore. I’ve worked with Joshua Bell, I’ve worked with all those people, but Susan Graham, I’d love to conduct. I haven’t conducted her in the opera world yet and I would love to. It’s funny, this list of people is so broad but that’s the way my brain thinks.

“Broadway’s Brightest Lights” is a one-night-only event on Saturday, April 15, starting at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $25 with VIP Gold Tickets available for $250. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to

To learn more about Luke Frazier, visit

More in Events

See More