Star of Indiana and ‘BLAST!’ director James Mason assesses current corps

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

This article was originally published in the November 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 8).

Having the Drum Corps International World Championships in Bloomington at the University of Indiana’s Memorial Stadium had some local fans waxing nostalgic about the days when the community’s own Star of Indiana was one of the competing corps — annually hosting the DCI Mid-America event at the IU stadium.

The fact that the Blue Stars used Star of Indiana’s old training facility just outside of town as its championship week practice site only further enhanced the memories of Bloomington’s past competitive drum corps champion.

Founded in the fall of 1984, Star of Indiana made history by qualifying for what’s now DCI World Class finals in its first competitive year, placing 10th in 1985 — still the highest placement of any first-year corps. Star continued to climb the competitive ranks until winning their lone DCI World Championship in 1991. The corps finished third in 1992 and was runner-up by a mere tenth of a point in 1993.

After the 1993 season, Star left the field of drum and bugle corps competition and changed its focus to develop a new concept in brass and percussion stage performance — initially performing with the Canadian Brass in “Brass Theater,” and later evolving into the award-winning Broadway production “BLAST!”

James Mason was the founding director of Star of Indiana and has taken the organization through its evolution to the stage, currently serving as president/CEO and artistic director/composer/arranger for Mason Entertainment Group. He was recipient of the 2001 Tony Award for Best Theatrical Event for “BLAST!” and was also a 2002 National Broadway Theatre Awards nominee for Best Director and Best Musical for the production.

One of the most successful touring Broadway shows in history, it premiered in December 1999 at the Apollo Hammersmith Theater in London before coming to the U.S. for the Broadway run in 2000, then a number of national tours.

A lifetime veteran of drum and bugle corps, Mason did arrangements for the corps he marched with starting at the age of 12, majored in music at the University of Northern Iowa, then marched with the Madison Scouts, playing in the 1975 DCI World Championship corps.
He became director of the Dubuque, IA, Colts in 1977, where he served until receiving the opportunity with Star of Indiana seven years later.

One of only four or five people in the activity who has won a world title as a performer and a director, Mason was also a founder and director of the Drum Corps All-Stars, a group that received national visibility through appearances in the Cotton, Orange and Fiesta Bowl parades, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

He also served as president of Drum Corps Midwest and on the board of directors of Drum Corps International. In 1989 and 1990, he produced and directed the first opening ceremonies for the DCI World Championships.

Mason was an interested observer as the 2008 DCI World Championships came to his hometown. He spoke with me about what he saw, what he thinks of the current state of the activity and what he’s got in the works — both now and in the future.

Mike Ferlazzo: What are your general impressions of the competitive drum and bugle corps activity and what it’s become since you last fielded a competitive corps with Star of Indiana 15 years ago?

James Mason: I was very impressed with how the overall quality of really all the groups went up. They have grown in so many different ways and it was just fun to come back and see it. When I say that, I’m talking about the total picture because I certainly watched the Open Class corps and then I watched the World Class corps. From top to bottom, I think all of them have a more solid foundation.

MF: What was it like having Drum Corps International’s premier championship event at IU’s Memorial Stadium, where your organization previously hosted the DCI Mid-America Championship?

JM: It was really wonderful because, even though I was really looking forward to seeing the championship up in Indy, it was nice having it in Bloomington as far as I didn’t have to drive as far all the time. To have it in your hometown — especially the size of community like Bloomington — I guess I never thought in my wildest dreams that a championship would ever come here. It was really a surreal experience, getting to see so many friends and people right in my hometown.

MF: Along with that, I understand Bill Cook graciously agreed to open up your training facility for the Blue Stars to use for their championship week practice site. Were you out to see them train and what was that experience like for you to see the building once again hosting a drum corps — which also sports a star logo similar to yours — training for a world championship event, much like yours used to?

JM: I didn’t get out to the Blue Stars because I had just gotten back from Japan. But I did go and watch the Colts rehearse and the Troopers. The Colts were at Bachelor Middle School near my home, and also the Troopers were on the south side of Bloomington. So I got to see both those groups rehearse and even Carolina Crown.

It was kind of fun being able to actually sit and hear all three drum corps actually that close to one another. It was kind of wonderful. I could hear them all rehearsing during the week, so it was great. It made it a magical experience.

MF: Did it bring back some memories?

JM: It sure did. Watching how hard the young people work and the teamwork and everything that’s involved with the shows and how committed the staffs are to the young people, i was a very, very exciting event.

MF: I know the Star of Indiana organization has been highly successful in its stage shows since leaving the competitive arena. What’s the latest news you’ve got planned in your current performance arena?

JM: We opened a new show in Japan this summer. I shouldn’t say a new show. We’ve done it since ’06. It’s called “M.I.X.,” which is an acronym for “Music in X-treme.” It’s gone over very, very well. I’m very excited to be able to have another go at that particular show.

And much like “BLAST!” evolved so much through the “Brass Theater” years, that’s what this show is doing and it’s just about ready to make it to the United States. I don’t know what I’ll call it when it gets here, but I’m very excited about that.

We’re also working on several others projects at this particular time. So the future looks extremely bright for Mason Entertainment Group.

MF: Now the million dollar question everyone wants to know after Bloomington played host to the successful World Championships and nearby Indianapolis will be hosting them annually in the future — did that rekindle any competitive juices among you and founder Bill Cook to explore fielding a competitive drum corps again, or possibly putting an alumni corps together for one of those Indianapolis championships?

JM: I can’t speak for Bill, because he certainly has his own agenda when it comes to all those things. Right now, I’m relegated to being a fan and I absolutely love seeing how the activity is developing. I’ll continually watch and enjoy the groups in competition and cheer on the activity.

MF: One of the reasons everybody was wondering that aloud is because with the Blue Stars training at your facility, it appears as if you’ve kept the building up, as if some day there might be a competitive drum corps back practicing there. Was there any thought to it continuing to be maintained?

JM: We still use the facility quite often to put up our (Mason Entertainment Group) shows. So, we still use it for the training ground and call it our boot camp when we go to teach and put up a show. That’s one of the reasons it worked out that it was available and I’m just glad that somebody was able to utilize the space.

MF: You mentioned that Carolina Crown was one of the corps you got over to see while they were in town. Do they kind of remind you of the old Star of Indiana with their fan-friendly shows, big brass and cream-colored uniforms, which your corps was wearing in its last competitive year?

JM: I think Carolina Crown certainly has its own thing going and they’re very good at it. I just give them all the credit in the world. I really think that certainly Star of Indiana was Star of Indiana with its own personality. Carolina Crown has theirs. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll continually grow within the activity because they certainly have a quality organization.

MF: I noticed in the Drum Corps International souvenir yearbook that they had a story about Star of Indiana and the roots of drum corps in Bloomington. Were there efforts by DCI officials to make some contact with you and/or Bill Cook?

JM: As I said, I was out of town for the three or four weeks prior to the championships, but I do know that they did try and call. I actually did communicate with Dan Acheson via e-mail. DCI was very gracious to us in providing the ability to help in any way. I guess DCI did try and reach out and I really thank them for that. It was very generous of them.

MF: Did Bill Cook have anything to do with the repairs that were made to the Memorial Stadium playing surface after the sink hole developed in order for it to be ready to host the DCI World Championships?

JM: You’d have to ask Mr. Cook that question.

MF: You were out to see the Colts and I know Greg Orwoll is someone you mentored while you served as director of the Colts. What are your thoughts right now about Greg being inducted this year into the DCI Hall of Fame?

JM: I think it’s fantastic. I know that Greg has been very, very committed to that organization for the the long haul. I can’t compliment him and the job that he’s done enough. I just congratulate him on his induction into the DCI Hall of Fame and I think it’s very well-deserved.

MF: What was it like seeing the Colts, a corps that you previously directed?

JM: It was unbelievable. As a matter of fact, I really felt that they had one of the nicest constructed shows of the evening. I absolutely loved some of the visual design things as it related to flag design and costumes, etc. I thought they were one of the more effective groups on the field, so I really congratulate Michael Cesario and the work that he’s done with the Colts to make them a real crowdpleaser and favorite — deservedly so.

MF: It sounds like you’re very happy about the decision you and the Star of Indiana organization made to leave the competitive field 15 years ago. Is that what you continue to see for the future of the organization — with no turning back to a competitive drum corps in your day-to-day operation any time soon?

JM: Well, Michael Jordan taught us to never say never about retirement. It’s something that one should never close that particular door on.

But at the same time, I’m absolutely thrilled that a lot of our projects really do reflect the history and tradition of the activity. It strikes me that we have literally introduced the activity to a whole new audience when our products go out and perform. Because we are more mainstream in our delivery — meaning going to arenas and theaters that people go to — it’s always exciting introducing young people to the whole realm of instrumental music. We feel that we’re ambassadors of that and it’s a good mission.

It’s also something where I watch all these young people become the world’s best at what they do and at the ripe old age of 21 they’re left with just a couple of performance options. One of the things that’s impressive with what we’ve created, they have opportunities to perform professionally what they spent years and years crafting and developing.

So it’s very exciting for MEG to push the envelope with these people in performance and, as I say, have them become ambassadors to the world.

MF: Obviously you know that this season was tremendously trying for the corps, DCI and the activity as a whole from a financial standpoint. What are your thoughts about the national touring model and whether it still works for the competitive activity, knowing what you know about it?

JM: It’s not really for me to comment. Each drum corps knows its own universe that it’s dealing with — its own community, its own structure — and they have to make responsible decisions based on that.

It’s really hard for me to comment because to make a blanket statement — knowing that there are all these individual groups — would be very short-sighted of me.

MF: There are also two fairly controversial rules on the table for next season’s DCI competitive season — the use of electronic    instruments and the amplification of soloists and small group ensembles. Those are some of the things you probably already do now on stage with your productions. What are your thoughts on them being introduced to the competitive activity?

JM: Since those things have already been passed and the corps want that type of production, I believe that it’s going to be very interesting to see how they utilize them and how it develops and ties into the DCI competitive format.