In the pit with the Cats orchestra: Paul Slater, Tom Clare and Ben Kennedy, at the London Palladium

Don’t fall into the pit: Backstage with MD Anthony Gabriele and the Cats orchestra

In London theatre, Musical direction, Musicals, Native by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

At nearly every musical, after the cast have taken their final bow and as the audience start filing out onto the street, the band will typically play a minute or so of exit music, almost the opposite of an overture, before they too sign off for the night.

I try to make a point of staying in the auditorium until that number is over, by which time often more than half the crowd will have left, so as to applaud the band (and at that moment in time, only the band) for the usually top-notch contribution that they will have made to the evening’s entertainment.

A good musical production is akin to a three-legged stool. The cast, the creative team and the orchestra make it a success and if you take away any one of those legs, the show flounders.

So I was delighted when, on having mentioned to my friend Anthony Gabriele, currently the musical director (MD) of Cats at the London Palladium, of my curiosity to see inside the orchestra pit during a big West End show, that he graciously invited me to sit in for a performance.

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Cats’ MD Anthony Gabriele, star Kerry Ellis (Grizabella) and Jonathan Baz

Meeting me at the stage door, he showed me down to the pit and as we made our way through the clowder of feline-costumed actors having their radio mikes checked, I felt suitably humiliated surrounded by such talented and athletic performers each of whom could probably summon up more fitness in their little finger than I could muster at all!

A good musical production is akin to a three-legged stool. The cast, the creative team and the orchestra make it a success and if you take away any one of those legs, the show flounders. Traditionally, a show’s pit is located sunken and to the front of the stage, where the conductor’s head and whirling baton is just visible to the audience, allowing him eye contact with both stage and band.

The staging of Cats is such that there is no room for such a luxurious, standard location and instead the musicians are located completely out of sight beneath the stage in a virtual musical dungeon. TV monitors allow Gabriele to see the action up top, whilst the usual screens fixed to the front of the dress circle (carefully located out of audience sightlines) allow the performers to clock the conductor.

It takes an MD of considerable talent to connect with performers located elsewhere in the building…

Like a train formed of an engine and its carriages (and for that read the orchestra and the cast – and I daren’t say as to who is the engine!), it is the MD who not only drives the train but, more importantly, couples those units into one. He or she must be strong enough to hold the train together, yet flexible enough to allow bumps along the track to be absorbed into a smooth journey that neither derails nor delays the train and which, 99 times out of a hundred, will not even be noticed by the paying passengers enjoying the journey.

It takes an MD of considerable talent to connect with performers located elsewhere in the building, but the youthful Gabriele is amongst the very best of the bunch. The man knows Lloyd Webber’s show intimately, along with many more shows besides. Indeed, during the interval, he was helping Joseph Poulton (Mistoffelees in Cats) with the tongue-twisting Zulu lyrics from The Lion King‘s “Circle of Life” opener, before the actor transfers there when Cats closes at the end of April. Gabriele has MD’d that show too….

 

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Continuing our feature series educating audiences on the importance of musical directors, critic and blogger Jonathan Baz spends an evening with Cats‘ MD Anthony Gabriele in the orchestra pit at the London Palladium.

Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends well beyond the capital. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan’s broad interest in theatre has taken him to Alabama to write about the history behind The Scottsboro Boys, as well as driving the stream train in the stage production of The Railway Children! His recent interviews have included John Kander, Stephen Mear and Cynthia Erivo. Away from the theatre, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with numerous clients in the entertainment industries. Jonathan blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com.

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Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends well beyond the capital. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan’s broad interest in theatre has taken him to Alabama to write about the history behind The Scottsboro Boys, as well as driving the stream train in the stage production of The Railway Children! His recent interviews have included John Kander, Stephen Mear and Cynthia Erivo. Away from the theatre, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with numerous clients in the entertainment industries. Jonathan blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com.