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VIDEO: Mike Dixon on Musical Direction and Creative Team Parity

In Features, Interviews, London theatre, Musical direction, Musicals, Native, Regional theatre, Video by Mike DixonLeave a Comment

A key part of the inaugural Also Recognised Awards is the introduction of the UK’s first-ever prize for Best Musical Direction. To launch this award, My Theatre Mates teamed up with musical director Mike Dixon and director Andrew Keates, who have been lobbying long and persuasively about the need for such an award and the importance of Creative Team Parity.

As part of our feature series designed to enlighten audiences on what musical direction is, Mark talked to Mike Dixon, one of the UK’s most experienced musical directors. In this in-depth interview, find out the answers to these and many other questions about the music in musicals:

  • What does a musical director and supervisor do?
  • Why have the Tony Awards stopped recognising Orchestration and Musical Direction?
  • How do you tell good versus bad musical direction?
  • How does your approach as a musical director change with different types of material?
  • Which is your favourite show you’ve worked on?
  • Why does the musical director stick around after the rest of the creative team have departed?
  • Does the musical director get involved in hiring the cast and orchestra?
  • Why shouldn’t live orchestras be replaced with recorded music?
  • What’s Symphonia? Why didn’t it work?
  • What are the challenges with amplification? Can you tell the difference?
  • Do musicians in the pit see the show they’re working on?
  • How do orchestra contracts differ from actors’ contracts?
  • What’s the job of the sound designer? How do they work with the musical director?
  • Where do you see the musical director in the theatrical hierarchy?
  • What’s the sitzprobe and why is it called that?
  • What’s it like performing in front of an audience for the first time?

 

Which show had the Best Musical Direction in 2014?

The Also Recognised Awards are the first UK theatre awards to give a prize for Musical Direction. The shortlists have been drawn up by the Mates, with Mike Dixon and Andrew Keates. Who will win? You're the judge. Voting closes at midnight on Sunday 19 April 2015.

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Continuing our feature series educating audiences on the importance of musical directors, My Theatre Mates co-founder Mark Shenton interviews musical director and Also Recognised Awards partner Mike Dixon.

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A typical day in the life of a Musical Director

In Awards, Features, Musical direction, Musicals, Native, Opinion by Mike DixonLeave a Comment

Continuing our feature series educating audiences on the importance of musical directors and supervisors, Mike Dixon takes us a look through his diary to explain what takes up his time at different stages of a musical’s life.


During preparation

The Musical Supervisor will work with the key creative team on the structure of the show, casting and will frequently write the first draft vocal score for the first day of rehearsals. This score will be refined during rehearsals and become the basis of the orchestrations that follow.

If the Musical Supervisor and the Musical Director are two separate people, as on bigger West End shows, the MD will also be at many of the above meetings and will endeavour to assist the MS as much as possible. Sometimes the MD will be required to prepare final callback auditionees as the process becomes refined.

During rehearsal

During this period, the MD and MS jobs are very interchangeable and they change daily. But they will be along these lines:

  • Vocally warm up the company;
  • Teach and after initial teaching, refine and polish, vocal performances;
  • Work with Choreographer and assistants playing and refining dance arrangements;
  • Work with Director on key parts of the show, creating underscores and musical inserts to cover dramatic moments;
  • Give understudies initial vocal rehearsals;
  • Work with orchestra, which happens towards the end of rehearsals;
  • Play for run-throughs of the show;
  • Breathe and stay calm.

A good MS/MD needs to be prepared for many changes during rehearsal. Whole swathes of a show can be cut and replaced during this time so it’s important not to get too attached to any single moment.

“Whole swathes of a show can be cut and replaced during this time so it’s important not to get too attached to any single moment.”

I always say: go with the flow and remember that you are the composer’s eyes and ears on the ground, helping to realise his or her vision for the piece musically. And, most importantly of all, you are PART OF A TEAM.

During the run of a show

Once a show is up and running, the interplay between the MS and the MD becomes really key.

The MS will make monthly (to begin with) visits to check in on and give notes to the cast and MD, who remains with the show day in, day out. If there is a great trust from the MS to the MD, then those visits may well reduce in time.

The MD will vocally warm up the company each day, conduct most of the shows, and keep the orchestra playing the show as well as possible. They will also be responsible for understudies. The Assistant MD will probably rehearse the understudies, but the MD will have to be there for understudy run-throughs.

At each performance, the MD:

  • Makes sure that any pre arranged cues with stage management for set and lighting are very clearly given;
  • Keeps the cast singing what they are supposed to be singing – time has a great corrosive effect on musical memory, sometimes a better term is ‘erosion’!;
  • Recognises that every show is the ‘first time’ for Dame Audience, even though it may be the umpteenth for the company;
  • Remembers that smiling from the pit can make ALL the difference.

During a cast recording

Here’s where a musical achieves its legacy, living on in recording rather than just in the memory.

The MS usually co-produces at the sound desk in the control room with the engineer(s). They sometimes conduct the album too. Along with the composer and the show producers, the MS may decide to make the orchestra a little larger for a fuller, recorded sound – e.g. more strings, extra brass. Then, of course, the orchestrations have to be created.

The MD sometimes conducts the cast album, or sometimes takes a back seat in the control room, noting any errors. Their biggest responsibility is making sure that the cast is as prepared as possible to record their best performances, with all harmonies polished and so on.

Which show had the Best Musical Direction in 2014?

The Also Recognised Awards are the first UK theatre awards to give a prize for Musical Direction. The shortlists have been drawn up by the Mates, with Mike Dixon and Andrew Keates. Who will will? You're the judge. Voting closes 12 April 2015.

VOTE NOW

Continuing our feature series educating audiences on the importance of musical directors and supervisors, Mike Dixon takes us a look through his diary to explain what takes up his time at different stages of a musical’s life.

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What’s the difference between a Composer, Musical Supervisor and Musical Director?

In Awards, Features, Inspiring people, Musical direction, Musicals, Native, Opinion by Mike DixonLeave a Comment

The music is, of course, of the utmost importance on a musical. It requires a huge amount of work from the musical supervisor and musical director to realise the composer’s vision for his score. Who does what?

 


Composer

The Composer is key to all the other jobs and creative processes. The composer writes the tune…now that sounds very simplistic and sometimes it is, but nevertheless from the tune all else follows. The definition of ‘writes’ varies from whistling, humming or singing into a recording device to fully musically notating a finished vocal score (rehearsal piano and voice parts) or full orchestral score (where the full orchestral parts are written as well). Most composers do something in the middle of the range above.

 Musical Supervisor

In charge of the Music Department is the Musical Supervisor or Production Musical Director (which is the older term for essentially the same job). Working with the Producers and Director, the Musical Supervisor assembles a team including Orchestrator, Musical Director and sometimes Vocal and Dance arrangers to carry the work forward.

Frequently, the Musical Supervisor is also responsible for and writes either the orchestrations or the vocal arrangements and routines of how the songs and incidental music work within the piece and also the dance arrangements. They decide with Producers on the size of the orchestra – typically, the Producer goes for the smallest size possible, the Musical Supervisor goes for the biggest and we compromise somewhere in the middle!

“It’s the job of the Musical Supervisor to uphold the wishes of the composer and keep the musical ship floating on an even keel at all times”

Once the number of musicians is decided, the Musical Supervisor works with the composer and orchestrator on the best line-up. That means making the best combination of instruments to carry the ‘sound’ of the show. They also work with the Orchestral Contractor (a.k.a. the Fixer) on hiring the members of the orchestra.

On a new production, the Musical Supervisor will attend most casting sessions, workshops, structure and development meetings with the Director and Choreographer. And, of course, they teach the cast the music they sing and their harmonies in the rehearsals and tech rehearsals, and they work with the orchestra during previews through to opening night. Sometimes they conduct the show too, other times they relinquish the baton to the Musical Director to be the Director’s musical right hand.

Essentially, it is the job of the Musical Supervisor to uphold the wishes of the composer and keep the musical ship floating on an even keel at all times.

 Musical Director

On a smaller show, the Musical Supervisor and Musical Director are one and the same person, under the title of Musical Director. (Hence why there’s often confusion between the two roles.) More usually, on larger shows, including all major West End productions, the Musical Director is there with the Musical Supervisor and stays on as the ‘musical person who remains with the show when all the other creative team have left’.

The Musical Director keeps the musical standard at the highest level possible and day to day rehearses, notes and works with the cast and understudies as well as conducts the show.

 

Which show had the Best Musical Direction in 2014?

The Also Recognised Awards are the first UK theatre awards to give a prize for Musical Direction. The shortlists have been drawn up by the Mates, with Mike Dixon and Andrew Keates. Who will will? You're the judge. Voting closes 12 April 2015.

VOTE NOW

 

The music is, of course, of the utmost importance on a musical. It requires a huge amount of work from the musical supervisor and musical director to realise the composer’s vision for his score. Who does what?