A Musical Directors View - David Ranford
“It sometimes surprises people that it takes several months to rehearse and prepare a piece of musical theatre – and a lot of money – and much preparation from the production team even before auditions take place. My own early experiences were as a performer who had very little idea what went on anywhere beyond the stage.
As I write it is exactly thirty years since a friend persuaded me to become musical director for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinnafore”. This was with the society that was latterly renamed Potters Bar Theatre Club and I am so happy to be working with the society still. When I attend any productions here I always enjoy turning to the back page of the programme to count and recall the many shows I have conducted. Each one holds memories of people’s commitment, skill, infectious enjoyment and a determination to do their best for the audiences.
So…what does a Musical Director (MD) do? I know performers often wonder about this!
- Things usually start with a meeting with the show’s producer and choreographer, when a shared vision is agreed.
- Audition pieces are determined.
- There is a “get together” to introduce the show to interested performers and a series of sessions to help to prepare auditions.
- The cast is chosen by an audition panel.
- Rehearsals often start with the music in order that later rehearsals don’t rely too much on holding books (tricky if you’re dancing).
- During rehearsals the producer, choreographer and musical director aim to perfect all aspects of the production so that the cast can give their best performance.
- The MD engages musicians to form an orchestra or band.
- Cuts and additions in the music need to be agreed and arranged.
- The orchestra usually has one rehearsal at the start of show week.
- The MD conducts the performances.
All very simple really!
Preparing and putting on a musical production requires unrivalled levels of teamwork. As MD I am usually the only member of the production team performing during show week and it is impressive to see (from the orchestra pit) how the stage crew, front of house, technical crews and others all support the cast, often without overt recognition. Add to this publicity, production team, box office, costumes and countless others, all focussed on the cast and audience. Apologies to the many other people who contribute. It is great to see a production “grow” for show week, as all these elements interrelate.
There can be frustrations of course. For example, I have to bite my lip when performers learn songs from recordings that don’t match the show score and are reluctant to adapt. Frustrations are more than outweighed by the rewards, however. Our shared priority is to do our best for each other in order to produce a good show. As Musical Director I have been able to make many lasting friendships with people who value and support each other, especially in difficult moments. One example – I was gently dozing one evening and woke up to loud music being played by the people who surrounded me. The rehearsal pianist, who knew the show, had heard the cue and started the orchestra for me until I stood up and joined in. I think I got away with it – don’t tell anyone!