Pittsburgh Pirates lefty Steven Brault makes his musical pitch

PITTSBURGH -- Steven Brault is waiting in the wings as a trio of Broadway veterans belt out the final notes of "Being Alive," from Stephen Sondheim's Company.

He has spent the last hour in his dressing room deep inside Heinz Hall, smacking his lips together in high-pitched trills and sticking his tongue behind his bottom row of teeth, making an "ah" sound to open his vocal cords to send the sounds up through his nasal passage.

He sipped on hot water and chatted with anyone who was around.

It's the second night of his three-night stint as a special guest performer for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's "Blockbuster Broadway" show. He's sung in front of crowds before, as a frontman with a handful of bands, as a music major in college and as an actor in musicals.

But until last night, he'd never performed with a full symphony.

His nerves are building as the women -- Kelli Rabke, Kerry O'Malley and Jessica Hendy -- exit. Finally, it's his turn.

Wearing a gold tie and a black suit that obscures the sleeves of futuristic tattoos, the part-time musician and full-time Pittsburgh Pirates lefty pitcher strides onstage as he's introduced to loud applause.

He takes his place beside the piano. The music swells, his nerves subside. Then Steven Brault begins to sing.

His voice soars as the "Phantom of the Opera" song "Music of the Night" builds, crescendoing from the gentle opening to a booming, powerful solo that envelops the hall with the full symphony behind him.

"It was just cool seeing him in his element, away from the baseball field," says teammate Josh Bell, who was there for Brault's debut performance on Feb. 7. "That's where I see him the most. He definitely killed that show just as much as him destroying batters' bats on the baseball mound."

The emotions and pressure Brault feels walking onto the stage aren't all that different from those he feels as he emerges from the bullpen at PNC Park, just a couple of blocks away, to take his place on the pitcher's mound. Except here there's a symphony behind him, a piano beside him and a vast audience obscured by the bright lights sitting in front of him.

There's no batter in front of him, no catcher to signal his pitches. Just a conductor with a baton to guide him through the solo.

The pressure is on, and Brault, a high-energy person who thrives in the spotlight, wouldn't have it any other way. It's those qualities that make him succeed as a performer and an athlete.

"In baseball, you're competing against the other guy," Brault says. "In music, you're competing against yourself. You can sing very well, and everybody will love it, but if you screw it up, there's nobody to blame. In baseball, sometimes, you can throw a good pitch but that guy just hit it well."

After he finishes the solo, he slips back into the hallway beside the stage and reappears next to the choir of high school students, taking his place beside a young female soloist. With the choir's help, he belts out "Seasons of Love," a classic anthem from "Rent." He and the young woman trade featured verses, and Brault belts out high-energy riffs and improv vocalizations in the final chorus.

As a thunderous applause ushers Brault from the stage, his hands are shaking, coursing with the same adrenaline he feels on the mound, only this time there's no throwing motion in which to channel that energy. So he comes off and talks to anyone he can find, excitedly reviewing his performance with others backstage during intermission.

"I think a lot of my life, a lot of the joyous moments in my life, came from being onstage or backstage," Brault says.

In less than 24 hours, he'll be on a flight to Bradenton, Florida, to begin his second life, the one that pays the bills now.

As a pitcher vying for a spot in the Pirates' starting rotation, Brault is dedicated to his baseball career right now. But when that's over? There's a second career waiting as a professional musician -- one he's been training for as long as his current job.

Brault is part baseball player, part rock band frontman and part aspiring Broadway actor. He's always been the center of attention, something his dad says comes from Brault's years of jockeying for position as the youngest of four boys. And now that quality serves him well as a performer on the stage and on the baseball diamond.

BRAULT'S PIRATES TEAMMATES have always known of the pitcher's passion for music.

Not only does he often sing Broadway songs around the clubhouse, he's also a regular on the microphone on long bus trips from the airport to the hotels.

To pass the time, Pirates players stand up at the front of the bus and sing songs requested by the rest of the team. Brault takes his turn often.

"He's a human jukebox, so we can ask him to sing whatever," teammate Trevor Williams says. "He'll bust it out."

Williams remembers the day Brault played him a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Hey Hey What Can I Do" -- which now has more than 70,000 plays on SoundCloud -- by his old band Street Gypsies. Williams admits he was a little skeptical at first.

"Whenever someone says, 'Yeah, I can sing like Jimmy Page,' it's like, 'No, you can't,'" Williams says. "But then when you listen, you're like, 'Holy cow, you actually are amazing.'"

It wasn't until Brault took the microphone at PNC Park before taking on the Brewers in June 2018 to sing the national anthem that the rest of his teammates grasped the depths of his talent.

"It kind of forced everybody all-in, like, 'Oh, Steven is actually really legit,'" Williams says.

The clubhouse was antsy before Brault's performance. As they listened to him warm up in the hallway, the butterflies grew.

"He was super nervous, but we were more nervous for him," Williams says. "We were like parents almost."

As Brault started to sing, his teammates held their breath. Once he nailed the opening 10 seconds, they exhaled, and then they started whispering incredulously to each other.

"We're all turning around, making sure he's actually singing and this isn't an audio recording of some sort that he did," Bell says. "But no, that was Steve in his element -- another one of his elements."

In addition to wowing his teammates, Brault's anthem performance also served as the catalyst for his album. Producer Loren Harriet, who's worked with other athletes like Nick Swisher and Bronson Arroyo on their musical endeavors, heard Brault's anthem and approached his agent with an idea.

The two started talking about the direction of the project when Harriet presented Brault with his vision: a broadway album.

Brault agreed instantly.

"I think it's opening more doors for me than if I were to be doing just a rock album," he says. "It's just kind of a more specific thing that shows an ability in a certain genre than when you go to rock and it's like, what are you going to do? Play in a band somewhere?"

After all, Brault already had rock band experience, having played with a handful of groups since high school. Changing his focus to show tunes for the album allowed him to demonstrate his range and show off what he went to school to do.

As soon as the 2019 season ended, Brault began working on his passion project in earnest. While he let his body recover from the physical toll of the season, he worked out his vocal cords in the studio. He put in the bulk of the album work in the first two weeks of the offseason.

A few songs on the album are solos, like "Music of the Night," but he had a little help on other tracks from friends like Bell.

Brault recruited Bell to do a spoken word section in a song from "Hadestown."

"He has a great voice," Brault says. "Low voice, very scratchy. Because of who I am and who he is, we have very different voices. It's a cool, kind of very big difference in our two voices on the one song."

To play up the deep, raspy quality of his voice, Bell smoked a cigar before he entered the booth.

"That was my idea of getting it just a little bit deeper and a little bit more raspy," Bell says. "If you listen to the track, I think I encapsulated that idea of a dark, sinister lord pretty well, just with the help of some tobacco."

Though the two weren't in the studio together, Brault used FaceTime to help him through it. Even from a distance, he was a steadying presence to Bell through his first experience in a recording studio.

"In my mind, he's the typical über-talented lefty that can do it all," Bell says. "He can hit, he can pitch, he can play the outfield if you wanted him to, he can sing, he can act."

BRAULT'S BEEN A major leaguer since 2016, when the Pirates called him up. In four years, he has amassed an 11-12 record with a 4.88 career ERA in 89 appearances, 35 of them starts.

But becoming a professional baseball player was never the plan.

Growing up, Brault split his time between the diamond and the stage in San Diego.

After trying out for and landing a role in his community theater's production of Rip Van Winkle in fifth grade, Brault fell in love with the rush of acting and musical theater.

And he wanted to share it.

The next year, he persuaded a few friends to audition with him. The year after that, a few more.

"I think we were both pretty performative people," says Andrew Erath, a friend and baseball teammate whom Brault recruited to theater. "I think we both like that element of baseball too. I pitched a little bit, and he's a pitcher, but that whole feeling of being on the spot, he definitely thrives in that kind of environment. So it was a no-brainer for both of us to do something like that."

As two of only a few boys doing community theater, Erath and Brault frequently landed big roles. Erath was usually the comic relief, while Brault played more serious characters.

Eventually, so many of Brault's male friends joined that the theater could put on shows like "Guys and Dolls" and "Damn Yankees." Performing at the C. Hook theater in high school, Brault was cast as Joe Hardy in "Damn Yankees, playing the part of the young baseball star in the 1955 classic musical comedy. Another time, Brault filled the role of evil dentist Orin Scrivello in "Little Shop of Horrors." A review of the play from the National Youth Theater lauded Brault for his "amusing, sadistic, bad boy persona."

For Brault, the roles of Hardy and the evil dentist were two of his favorites because they allowed him to show off his range.

"It was like the two polar opposites of acting, being yourself and then being somebody that you can't even relate to and you have to completely lose yourself to be that character," Brault says.

In addition to performing in musicals through high school, Brault was the frontman of a band, Off the Water, and he continued playing baseball.

"I think in another life, he would've been a greaser flipping a coin on the street corner," Erath says. "He would've done that. Whatever would've gotten him attention at any time period, he'd be doing it."

Brault decided on Regis University, a Division II program, because it was the only school that would allow him to play baseball and pursue a vocal major. On his official visit, the music director and the head baseball coach sat down with him to plot out exactly how they could make his two passions work.

For three years, Brault balanced music theory classes and choir rehearsal with baseball practices and games. Most of the choir rehearsals were during the week, forcing him to miss practice time but allowing him to be present for most every weekend game.

"Music was prioritized over baseball," Brault says. "It was my study. I was going to a very small Division II school just to be realistic about it. It didn't seem like I was really ever going to get drafted anyway."

His mornings often started at 5:30 with a baseball workout, followed by class until noon, a three-hour baseball practice in the afternoon and another hours-long choir practice at night.

It left Brault with an hour here or there to grab lunch and do his homework. Though he grew up performing in musicals and with his high school band, Brault quickly found he had a lot of catching up to do with others in his class.

"It was like doing Spanish as your major but without ever having heard the language before," Brault says. "My freshman year, we're talking about music theory and stuff and I'm like, 'I can't even read music. I don't know what any of this means. I just know when it goes up, I go up. When it goes down, I go down.'"

But as he learned the technical side of music, Brault's appreciation grew even deeper. He was prepared to graduate from Regis with a vocal degree and pursue a career as a professional musician, maybe with a stop at a graduate program to develop his acting skills. He even had an internship lined up to work backstage at the Denver Opera House following his junior year.

Erath remembers Brault talking about his desire to follow music during a break in college when they met up to play their instruments.

"'I don't know if baseball -- I don't know if I'm going to do it,'" Erath remembers Brault telling him. "At the time I was like, 'That's awesome! We can do it together. We can play music.'"

Those plans, though, were derailed when a professional baseball scout came to a game to see a rival pitcher during Brault's junior season.

Instead, Brault caught his eye when the San Diego native threw seven shutout innings and struck out 10. A week later, the scout came back and Brault struck out 15. Soon, there were 13 scouts at a game just to watch Brault pitch. Even with so much attention, it took a while for everything to sink in.

"I was talking to a few scouts and one of them said something like, 'Heaven forbid you get drafted in the 15th round, would you take it?' and that's when it clicked in my head," Brault says, incredulously recounting the conversation. "Like, 'Oh my god, they think I'm going to get drafted before the 15th round.' Like, yeah, without trying to sound too eager, I said, 'Uh, yes, yes, I will. I would absolutely do that.'"

Brault didn't last until the 15th round. He came off the board in the 11th, drafted by the Orioles. Leaving music behind was an easy decision after that.

"It wasn't even really a question, it was just, like, 'I'm from a small Division II school,'" Brault says. "I don't know if I'm going to get this opportunity ever again, so I'm just going to latch on to it and see where it takes me."

THE FIRST TIME Brault walked into rehearsal with the Pittsburgh Symphony, he was floored. Nearly each musician was wearing Pirates gear. Some even wore Brault shirseys.

"It was surreal," Brault says. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, these are Pittsburgh people who are Pirates fans that I'm getting to sing for.' It was really cool, because when I'm stepping into their domain, I'm like, 'Look, I'm the little guy here, you guys tell me what to do. I just don't want to ruin the show.'"

Conductor Stuart Chafetz wasn't sure what he was getting when he heard that a Pirates player wanted to participate in the Broadway Hits show alongside a trio of veteran Broadway actresses. He heard a recording of Brault from his upcoming album before he agreed to incorporate Brault in the show, but he still wasn't entirely convinced. With modern day audio engineering and autotune, just about anyone can sound good in a recording.

Brault, though, is the real deal. And he showed that from his very first rehearsal with the full orchestra.

"Very often when you're singing with an orchestra for the first time, it's an adjustment because there's a lot of people behind you. Do I go with them? Do they go with me? So it's a getting-to-know-you process," Chafetz says. "I'd say within the first two minutes, it was, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be great.' It was that reaction of, 'People are going to go crazy.'"

Chafetz was right.

A couple of hours before returning to Heinz Hall for the Saturday night performance, Brault was sitting in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel when a couple approached him.

The man asked if he was the one who performed "Music of the Night" in the orchestra show. When he nodded yes, the couple gushed.

"We thought 'Phantom of the Opera' was the highlight of the night for us," the man said.

Brault thanked them, and the couple told him they were planning to attend Saturday night's performance too.

His final performance Sunday went much like the other two on Friday and Saturday, with one scheduling adjustment: After he finished "Seasons of Love" with the Hamlisch-Page Student Choir, Brault darted from Heinz Hall to a car waiting outside to take him to the airport.

From there, he flew directly to spring training, where pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report for physicals the next day.

As he went through security at Pittsburgh International, the orchestra and Broadway stars continued the second half of the show. Brault's exit was so seamless that Chafetz even called for him to take a bow at the show's end before being reminded by the pianist of Brault's early escape.

For Brault, it was just another installment of the worlds he's balanced his whole life.

"It's like I have practice because of the times I did it in high school and college and everything. All right, now music is over," Brault says. "It's time to play baseball."

Brault planned to bring his lives together at least one more time during the season, scheduling a release party for his Broadway album on April 3 between home games against the Cincinnati Reds. But the COVID-19 outbreak changed that. Instead, he's adapting, like everyone else.

He'll take part in an Instagram Live and maybe sing a few songs a cappella from his place in Florida, where he's been staying since the season's postponement so that's he's close to the team's physician as he rehabs a shoulder strain.

While the baseball world pauses, Brault is picking up the other part of his life, the part he put on hold to pursue a baseball career that once seemed like a long shot.

"It definitely makes me think about what is coming next," Brault says. "And I have gotten to experience a lot more of the music side of my life this past year, and whenever baseball does end I just hope I'll be able to transfer into that or broadcasting."

He's not done with baseball, not by a mile. But whenever that next part of his life begins, he'll be ready.