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FOREVER PLAID – St James Studio

In London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Regional theatre, Reviews, Touring by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

The gingham tablecloths set the tone for Forever Plaid, currently downstairs at St James’ Studio. Look closely and the “menu cards” are actually the evening’s set list. If it wasn’t for the excellent performances on display, all that would be missing would be a juke-box to seal the illusion of 1960’s Americana that Forever Plaid so carefully re-creates.

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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.

Cats_OrchestraPit3-AG-KEllis-JB_apr15

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.

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I Know I Mustn’t Fall Into The Pit – Backstage With Anthony Gabriele and the Cats’ Orchestra

In Features 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. 
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. 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 a akin to a 3-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 audience’s typical view is of the conductor’s head and whirling baton just visible, 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.
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 de-rail nor delay the train and which 99 times out of a hundred, will not even be noticed by the paying passengers enjoying the journey.
Anthony Gabriele, Kerry Ellis and Jonathan Baz
Stopping off en-route to the pit to say a quick hello to the lovely Kerry Ellis, starring as the show’s Grizabella, I was then sat close to Gabriele (but out of the way), in front of his 8 musicians and issued headphones (cans) to listen to the voices that would be coming from afar. 

Out of sight, the dress code is a casual mix of jeans, trainers and t-shirts, but this is an appearance that couldn’t be more deceptive. As the overture starts it is clear that these men can play tunes, known the world over, to a world class standard. My phone was safely set to flight mode and with baton raised, maestro Gabriele got the show underway.
Andrew Lloyd Webber began composing Cats in the 1970’s and there is a strong synthesised/ keyboards bias to his compositions. Gabriele’s band comprise 3 keyboard players, 2 people on reeds, a drummer, a guitarist and a bass player.

The Cats pit has some clever touches. An array of speakers feed the keyboards’ electronic output (already being channelled directly to the show’s sound desk) into the room, to blend with the acoustic sounds of the traditional instruments. Microphones suspended from the ceiling pick up this ambient melding of the sounds, providing a further layer of texture to the finished product that the sound team put out to the audience. It has proved to be a gorgeous enhancement of the melodies.
Paul Slater, Tom Clare and Ben Kennedy (note the arrayed speakers)
It takes a 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 the show intimately along with many more besides. Indeed, it was a surprise during the interval to find him helping Joseph Poulton (Mistoffelees in the show), 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.
A musical that is either sung or danced through completely, there is barely a moment in Cats that is music-free, and whilst the headphones proved a useful assistance in following the action on stage, there were times when I just took them off and listened in amazement to the talent manifest around me.
What struck me on the night observing the 8 musicians was the passion and commitment writ on their faces as they delivered the classic score, along with an immense sense of welcoming camaraderie shown to the two deputising musicians (“deps”) who were in on the night, covering for absent regulars.

In no particular order and amidst a sea of excellence, memorable moments were the relaxed banter amidst the keyboard players, the gorgeous double-bass work during Growltiger’s Last Stand with a deliciously jazzy syncopation throughout the number. There was a “funk-rock” sound to Mr. Misstofelees that included moments of percussive wonder from the drummer, (I was amazed to see and hear played, up close and for the first time, the enchanting glissando of a mark tree) whilst the brash big-band sound of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer was a delight and of course the overall orchestral splendour of the Jellicle Ball helped explain why, for so long, this show had been the longest running hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cans were slipped back on to hear Kerry Ellis smash the line “Touch me..” from Memory, proving that even through a headset and on a black and white monitor, her performance is still nothing short of sensational – though as the song played out I took the cans off to luxuriate in these 8 musicians generating what has become one of the most broadcast and beloved songs in the canon in recent years.
Gabriele brings the show to a close – in the background Howard McGill, Dan Czwartos and Darren Lord
The musicians who welcomed me on the night were:
Keyboard 1: Paul Slater Keyboard 2: Darren Lord (depping for Assistant Musical Director: Tim Davies) Keyboard 3/Deputy Conductor: Ben KennedyElectric Guitar/Acoustic Guitar: Nick Rees Electric Bass/Double Bass: Nathan Finn Drums/Percussion: Tom Clare Woodwind 1 – Flute/Piccolo/Clarinet/Tenor Saxophone: Howard McGill (depping for Gavin Tate-Lovery)Woodwind 2 – Clarinet/Soprano Saxophone/Baritone Saxophone: Dan Czwartos
Gentlemen, thank you all. It was a night I shall never forget.

Orchestral Management: Stephen Hill for Musicians UK Ltd.

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Psycho Live – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Dominion Theatre, London
*****
Screenplay by Joseph StefanoBased on the novel Psycho by Robert BlochDirected by Alfred Hitchcock
Orchestral score by Bernard HerrmannPerformed live by Cinematic SinfoniaConducted by Anthony Gabriele

Janet Leigh takes a shower in Psycho
It’s been a long long time since the opening bars of a movie’s score have made the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. But sat in the Dominion Theatre, as Psycho’s split-text title lines slid across the screen, to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s strings-only orchestration played by the Cinematic Sinfonia orchestra was to truly experience the magic of the movies.
The likes of Netflix and Apple have gone a long way to neuter the majesty of cinema. Imagery that  was once beautifully photographed for the vast expanse of cinemascope is now routinely streamed to our eponymous tiny telephones and tablets and one can fear for a generation currently growing up, who may well consider a trip to a local cinema’s full sized silver screen to be an unnecessary and expensive chore. So whilst this (partly premium-priced) event may well have been one for the fans, it was worth every penny.
Another feature of the evening was in actually seeing and hearing  the film’s music played live, giving rise to a strange sense of witnessing the re-creation of what used to be a fundamental component of any movie’s construction. When any original score was recorded, it would have demanded a conductor facing the screen as he conducts his studio orchestra in time with the action – just the scenario that the Dominion audience were privileged to witness for themselves.
It was of course also a treat to re-visit a movie classic and one can forget how quite how groundbreaking Psycho’s 1960 release was to prove, shaking up many of the movie-industry’s accepted protocols. Intermingling sex with violence and deviancy – even the opening scene of Janet Leigh, bra-clad and in bed with her unmarried lover pushed the envelope of its time. And the dialogue is just so deliciously dated too. When Leigh’s Marion Crane tells Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates, who has just explained to her the gruesome yet mundane details of his interest in taxidermy, that “a man should have a hobby”, a comment so simple and genteel and so firmly fixed in a time gone by.
Shot in black and white by Hitchcock’s TV series camera crew rather than a feature film unit, the production budget was a squeeze. In fact, so tight were the movie’s finances that Herrmann, who resolutely refused to cut his own fee, was forced to trim his orchestra to strings only. Has necessity ever been proved to have been the mother (no pun intended) of such ultimately rich invention? Some years back The Observer published its list of the 50 film scores. Psycho was ranked #2 and the paper wrote:
Hitchcock, who had originally planned to play the shower sequence without accompaniment, later admitted that ’33 per cent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music’, and doubled the composer’s salary as a reward. Herrmann studiously matched the black and white visuals of Hitch’s masterpiece by draining the ‘colour’ from his orchestrations, stripping away all but the stringed instruments to create a monochrome wall of aural unease.
And remarkably for a film that was to achieve iconic status, amongst that season’s major gongs Psycho was to only pick up a Golden Globe for Leigh, winning nothing at the Oscars. But as the years have proven and as modern-day horror director Eli Roth recently commented, “..time is the only critic that matters”.
Hitchcock’s assessment of the music’s contribution was sage. So much of the story’s drama, and in particular its opening chapters, homing in on Marion’s anxiety after she has stolen the cash from her boss, play out with an absolutely excruciating intensity. The performance and the photography are first class, but it is Herrmann’s relentlessly jarring strings with their harsh minor-key harmonics, that seal the woman’s anguish into our watching psyches. And for a feature film that was to give the world the slasher-movie, Herrmann’s jagged chords as Crane is stabbed to death in the most famous shower scene ever, only heighten that moment’s timeless terror.
Conductor Gabriele knows both movie and score intimately, with this having been the fourth occasion that time he has brandished his baton in time with Bates’ bread knife. Gabriele is one of London’s finest stage-conductors, adept at seamlessly linking an orchestra to the ebb and flow of a live production. But there is no scope for fluid flexibility in conductiong in time to a movie. The imagery and dialog are fixed in time and it is Gabriele’s responsibility to ensure that his musicians maintain pinpoint co-ordination with the screen. It is a massive task and it is a mark of Gabriele’s consummate skill that he makes it look so effortless – and a credit too to the Cinematic Sinfonica orchestra for delivering such an immaculately rehearsed sound. 
Gabriele has a passion for film and music, telling me post-Psycho of plans (and dreams) to conduct future movie scores by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, as well as other Herrmann offerings. Personally, I long for Ennio Morricone’s work for The Mission and Once Upon A Time In America to be given the Gabriele treatment. Maybe one day…
Until then, the sheer musical excellence of Psycho Live, wedded to Hitchcock’s masterclass in film-making will stay with me for a long time. And in a further thoughtful touch, possibly barely noticed by many in the audience, how considerate of the Dominion to screen the movie in the run up to Mother’s Day!

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, missing his mother 

To find out about more Cinematic Sinfonia screenings, follow them on Twitter @cinesinfonia