If you’ve come here without reading part one, stop immediately, click here, and enjoy!
Even During A Show
We Like To Have A Little Fun…
In part one, we covered my standard day almost up until the start of the show. I’ve made sure the now infamous ‘click’ is working, and now after all my preflight checks, my podium phone rings. I think it’s rather cute the phone line linking me with stage management is still an old telephone. SM check I have all the band seated and that I have no issues, and when ready, they tell me when to start the show. During the performance, this turns into an emergency phone. If I have an issue (keyboard has gone down; lightbulb in music stand has blown-up; band member has ran out of whisky and fainted etc.) I call this in, and the relevant person turns up seconds later to assist. Likewise, if stage management needs a show stop, they call me to instruct if I should stop conducting immediately or at the end of the song. Thankfully, due to the fantastic team we had on Bat, there were less than ten show stops in the entire run. Don’t get me wrong, all of this sounds stressful, but it’s not. We still have fun…
As the finale finished on stage, we even had our own bat, ‘Gerald’, who flew every performance!
Our mad drummer, Elliott Henshaw, even showed how multi-talented he is by playing with not one drumstick, but ten!
So that covers most things leading up to the downbeat. But what’s the hardest thing about conducting a show? Tony Blair touted his three Rs, so I'll have my three Ts; tempo, tenacity and trouble!
Tempo: Everyone likes consistency, and what I feel in my body as the correct speed may feel different to what my assistant feels. On a two-show day, everyone is more tired than usual, so things naturally slow down a little; it’s my job to pull the show kicking and screaming to the end.
Tenacity: There is a saying which applies to conductors; fake it 'till you make it. On day one of rehearsals, we need to lead the cast and teach them what we know. Except everyone forgets it probably our day one too; so we use our knowledge, experience and ability to fake it 'till the cast make it.
Trouble: Like the Captain of the Titanic, you only know how good you are at your job when trouble rears its ugly head. Now I admit, I'm a little strange on this particular subject. See, I love trouble. I enjoy a performance going slightly awry and navigating around the ice. This is when I come into my own. Whilst in Toronto, I conducted a show from underneath the stage; which is fine, until I lost all sound in my earphones. I was literally conducting in silence. For a split second it's frightening, and then the next second, it was actually quite fun.
You see, being a conductor involves two core principals:
Communication and Energy
Communication is at the heart of my job. I communicate with the band to give the tempo, the style, and if new to the music, be a guiding light to help make entrances correctly. I am the conduit between the cast and the band. If a singer is tired and struggling, I should be able to sense this and help out by pushing through difficult passages for example.
Energy is the part of my job that most people won't have guessed. How many times have you been in a meeting with the most boring, Donald Trump-Esq twirp and you just wanted to find the nearest exit, even if it meant tearing the evacuation slide? Or the opposite, where you have sat in front of a talented, Barack Obama-Esq inspiration, who gave you the internal energy to fuel your local nuclear plant? This is what I try to do. I try to be the Obama of the conducting world.
And that's a day in the life of a Musical Director. Of course, if you sit behind this sound desk, it's an entirely different day.
Or if you sit behind one of these computers during the tech setup period of the show, it's a radically different day.
This all proves that theatre can be the most beautiful collaborative industry. Each day is varied and brings its own challenge, and the three I detest the most are inconsistent salary (like the majority of self-employed people), unsociable hours (especially if you have a family) and having to work with the most painfully annoying, self-centred, flouncingly arrogant divas. The first two I can manage with the help of a supportive family, the third is just me on any given day. Welcome to theatre, darling.
Book recommendations discussing theatre and the mystery of backstage
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear) - a fun, tongue in cheek, medium length book.
London Theatres - a fascinating and detailed hardcover book by leading theatre critic Michael Coveney.
Theatreland: A Journey Through the Heart of London's Theatre - a hardback book covering the five centuries from Shakespeare’s playhouses to today’s West End
Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story - a hardcover book taking you through a journey from Les Mis through to Mary Poppins
Musical Theatre: A History - a decent length paperback book which is more academic and detailed in style