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Director meets Musical Director: You’re the One That I Want

In Musical direction, Musicals, Native by Andrew KeatesLeave a Comment

Continuing our feature series educating audiences on the importance of musical directors, director-producer Andrew Keates explains his approach to appointing this key role in his creative team on a production.


 

My involvement in the Also Recognised Awards

For the past few years, I have been campaigning that musical direction be recognised in any awards that claims to champion musicals in the UK. I cannot comprehend why any organisation with even a microscopic insight into what can be required to create a musical wouldn’t praise such an integral role. Hypothetically speaking, without a skilled MD, we could be led to a musical either having no music whatsoever, or even worse, a show with music performed badly.

I have directed many varieties of musical theatre, including revivals and new works. Thanks to that experience and my endless campaigning for creative team parity, I feel very honoured to have been asked to help shortlist two categories in Mark and Terri’s inaugural Also Recognised Awards – Best Musical Direction and Best Original Music – alongside my friend and colleague Mike Dixon.

I cannot comprehend why any organisation with even a microscopic insight into what can be required to create a musical wouldn’t praise such an integral role.

As part of those duties, we feel it is important to help educate and enlighten those who may not have considered all that an MD does. So, as part of this series, I am going to explore the various kinds of responsibilities that musical directors have undertaken throughout my own processes. On a musical, the buck might end with the director but its value is ultimately earned thanks to an MD.

I preface all of this with an admission. In interviews and masterclasses I give, one of my least favourite questions is: ‘What is your rehearsal process?’

The reason I loathe those words is that every rehearsal process is completely different. It depends on the show, resources, actors, production team members, budget, performance style, composer, musical language, venue… I could go on, the variables are endless.

So please understand that this series is in no way a definitive or encyclopaedic ‘how to’ guide. I offer it as merely an anecdotal jaunt from my own perspective as a director as to some of the many responsibilities and skills that I have witnessed or might expect of a skilled musical director.


 

Part 1: “You’re The One That I Want”

The value and skills of MDs are always considered before they’ve even been asked if they will undertake a production. Whilst assembling a production team, just like a director, designer or choreographer, so much depends upon the background of this key creative as to whether they will be appropriate to serve the piece.

Martin Neely and the cast of The Hired Man, at the Landor Theatre in 2011

Martin Neely and the cast of The Hired Man, at the Landor Theatre in 2011

As much as we like to believe that ‘anyone’ can do ‘anything’, in reality (and in my own personal experience), it’s those that are passionate or possess prior experience in similar projects that nearly always lead to a successful production. For example, when considering who would MD my chamber production of The Hired Man, I ultimately went with the person I knew possessed extraordinary orchestration and piano skills, was both passionate and sensitive to the work of composer Howard Goodall and would command not only an authoritative presence with a predominantly young company, but also had experience of working at several brilliant drama schools to ensure the cast was encouraged and nurtured.

That person was Niall Bailey. The resulting production was nominated for over 13 different awards and won Best Musical Production in the Off West End Awards. It’s cruel that, as proud as I am of the overall production and my ‘vision’ for the piece as a director, the new orchestrations, the exemplary execution of Goodall’s sublime score and the company camaraderie was predominantly due to Niall’s facilitation and skillset. He was as I suspected – the right man to hire for The Hired Man job.

Whilst on the subject of Goodall, a similar case of events was true of Howard’s professional world premiere of A Winter’s Tale. A Winter’s Tale was (in my opinion) the hardest of all things to bring to life in the theatre – a brand new musical. When considering who would be leading the baton from pre-production until the closing night, I had to consider that this wasn’t just a piece that required a skilled MD.

It required a highly skilled MD with specific experience of creating new musical theatre, where we could trust that new material could be facilitated, often on the spot within a rehearsal room or in collaboration with Howard himself. This person would need to satisfy Howard’s excellent taste and serve my own needs to support the narrative, musical language and structure of the piece.

A lesser MD would have probably curled up in a ball and pointed the finger to somebody else when it came to taking responsibility.

Additionally, the show required someone who was hungry for Howard’s work and would be prepared (like all of us on that production) for many a sleepless night to serve the show. At the time, I decided to take a risk with a relatively new MD who had studied Howard’s work at Mountview and who had always impressed me during my time at the Landor Theatre. George Dyer was the MD, and I’m confident that many reading this will know of his remarkable skills and passion. What the show needed and what George provided by the bucketload was tenacity. We couldn’t have opened without his hard work – a lesser MD would have probably curled up in a ball and pointed the finger to somebody else when it came to taking responsibility.

As a director, in many ways it is my job to be ‘the eyes’ of the production. Well, I would argue that it is the MD’s role to be ‘the ears’. There are many times where I might need to use my skills to help an actor play a moment in the show, where I might use various exercises or questions to help the actor reach their target. The same is true when it comes to the music department, not only for the actors, but for the band too.

Dessa Rose, starring Cynthia Erivo, had its UK premiere at Trafalgar Studios in 2014, with musical supervision by Mark Collins and musical direction by Dean Austin.

Dessa Rose, starring Cynthia Erivo, had its UK premiere at Trafalgar Studios in 2014, with musical direction by Dean Austin and musical supervision by Mark Collins.

Yes, I might decide upon an intimate design with an integrated band, as I did at the Trafalgar Studios for Dessa Rose. But it was my MD on that show who pointed out to my designer whether there was enough bowing room for a cellist. The same is true when I wanted to use authentic African drums played by the cast – I was proud of the idea, but it was my MD and his colleagues that taught the cast and ultimately made it happen.

How many times have you seen a musical where your breath might have been taken away by that amazing note at the end of a big number. Yes, the note might always have been in the actor’s range, but fundamentally, I assure you, the breathtaking achievement is the MD’s. He or she is the one who is forever keeping an eye on the wellbeing and technique of the actor, as well as of all the musicians, to ensure that final moment is musical bliss – rather than just relying on the actor and the sound designer to make sure noise levels are right.

To conclude, like all collaborations, choosing your MD isn’t just about ‘can they play this’ and ‘how will they achieve that’. For me, so much about being part of a creative/production team is feeling comfortable enough with someone where one day you can be free to play with ideas and another day to be able to instruct depending on whatever challenge the process requires.

It’s about appreciating their style, their musicality and their approach to facilitating the musical requirements of a piece – which doesn’t just mean playing the right dots on the score. It’s about respect and trust. But last and arguably most importantly, the thing I need most of all from an MD is someone who is my right-hand man/woman. Someone I can create with. Someone I can trust will not only take my direction with humility, but someone I can learn from and accept their valuable opinion with the same grace.

Next in this series, Andrew will look at the relationship between the Director and the Musical Director throughout pre-production.

 

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, director-producer Andrew Keates explains his approach to appointing this key role in his creative team on a production.

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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?