My YMT UK experiences

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Youth Music Theatre UK prides itself on being the ‘leading music theatre company for young people’, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in two of their productions during the last two summers, as both a band member and as an assistant musical director. These shows have been invaluable to me as someone trying to get more experience in the theatre world, and with YMT’s auditions tour happening right now, I thought I’d write about the two projects I’ve done.

In 2016 I decided to apply to play keyboards in the band for one of the organisation’s eight projects that year. Although I already had an interest in MDing and had some experience of it at uni, my plan was to be in the band that summer, and then AMD the following summer (which I did!). Anyway, I auditioned in Southampton in January, and then found out in April that I had been placed on a show called The Dark Tower. So after much anticipation I travelled to a boarding school in the south of England to begin the residential rehearsals. The cast of the show had already been there for a week, so myself and the other band members had to slot into both rehearsals and the social life! It was awesome staying in a boarding school, and the fact the rehearsal period was residential was so beneficial, because it meant we were never missing anyone, unlike rehearsals for other shows I’ve done. I became good friends with the rest of the band (and the MDs!), and after a week we travelled to London.

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The Dark Tower was performed at The Bussey Building in Peckham, and it was an immersive experience for the audience, with the production being set over all three floors of the performance space. Obviously this raised logistical problems, such as having to have a keyboard on each floor! We also happened to perform the show during some of the hottest days that year, and sometimes the temperature was unbearable, especially with so many people crammed into the space. I absolutely loved my first experience of YMT, which totally inspired me to apply to be an AMD for a show the following year.

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So, in 2017 I applied for the Creative Trainee scheme, and went to an interview in London, and a few weeks later I was told that I’d been placed on a project called Jabberwocky. Being on the creative team I rehearsed the project for the full two weeks, rather than only one like the previous year. We started rehearsing the show at another boarding school, with our cast of 36 girls aged 11-17. I much preferred being on the creative team and getting to be treated more like an adult, as on The Dark Tower the band were still considered to be ‘young people’. As AMD my responsibilities were to accompany some rehearsals, work on solo sections with small groups of the cast, and to teach some songs to everyone. It was amazing getting to work alongside a professional creative team, who also became our friends!

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After a week we travelled to Kent, as the show was to be performed at Theatre Royal Margate – one of the oldest and most haunted theatres in the country! The theatre is beautiful and it was such a privilege to get to perform there, and it was so nice to be able to have picnics by the sea during breaks from technical rehearsals! The shows went so well and I had such an overwhelming sense of pride for all of the girls in the cast once it was all over.

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YMT projects are such a good way for young people interested in performing to spend their summers. I’ve really appreciated everything both the projects I’ve taken part in have taught me, and I’ve met so many good friends and industry contacts. To anyone interested in doing musical theatre in the future – get involved!

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post, I’m just passionate about the company!

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Shows I worked on in 2017

As well as seeing a fair amount of theatre during 2017, I also managed to make some too! Well, musically direct some anyway. Over the last 3 years the majority of shows I’ve done have been through the musical theatre society at my (old!) uni, but this year I’ve managed to branch out a little bit more too. So here’s my year of shows!

Curtains – March 2017

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Credit: Charlie House Media

Curtains was my last ‘big’ uni show, and definitely my most challenging MDing experience yet! This was partly because I wasn’t just the MD – I had a named part, 3 lines, and a (very short) solo song. Throw into the mix that said part had an indeterminate European  a Russian accent, and this was quite a lot to take on! I also had my first experience of stick conducting a band, and while I relished the challenge, I definitely much prefer keys conducting. Or just keys playing. Anyway, the show turned out brilliantly despite significant levels of stress and I was very proud of everyone involved. #sop

Made in Dagenham – March-April 2017

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This was a show put on by a local amateur dramatics group, and I was ‘only’ in the band! It was great fun though – I played keys 2, and it was really refreshing to be involved in a show outside of uni (although most of the people in the band were uni people!). This was also my first paid pit band gig, so that was exciting… hopefully the first of many??!!

Little Puddle – May 2017

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My first original show! (Not written by me, I hasten to add). I was pleased to be able to help out on this crazy production as AMD, and I also played keys 2 (and a kazoo) in the band. It was so interesting to work on an original show and to be there throughout the process of lyric rewrites and spontaneous key changes!

The 24 Hour Show – June 2017

Every year, the musical theatre society at my old uni rehearses and puts on a show in just 24 hours for charity. I was on the prod team as a co MD, and we auditioned everyone and chose a cast… but didn’t tell the cast what the show was until 24 hours before the first performance. It was a totally mad and surreal experience, during which I got an hour of sleep (which was more than most!) and felt like I went a little bit insane. Nonetheless, we pulled it off, and it was a great show to finish my uni experience with!

Jabberwocky – August 2017

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Having played in the band for a Youth Music Theatre (YMT) production last year, I was so excited to do another one – but this time as the assistant musical director. Getting to work alongside industry professionals was so valuable, and it was such a rewarding (and exhausting!) 2 weeks of constant theatre making! The show involved 39 girls aged 11-17. This was also an original piece, so there were constantly changes being made to the score and script, and often these changes were a result of what the cast spontaneously did which was awesome. Performing the show at the Theatre Royal Margate (the oldest theatre in the country) was amazing too.

 

Now that I have a full time (non theatre based) job, my opportunities to do shows have somewhat diminished, but I hopefully have at least 3 lined up for 2018 already!

Review – Mamma Mia! UK Tour, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 29/09/16

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Mamma Mia is the type of show that can almost guarantee packed audiences all over the country months in advance of it opening in each city. The success of the 2008 film (and of course, the popularity of ABBA’s music) has created ready made audiences everywhere who are super keen to experience the show live – and this touring production does not disappoint.

The show tells the story of a young woman and her three potential dads on the eve of her wedding day, on an idyllic Greek island. Despite my initial reservations about how the designers would recreate this setting on stage, the whitewashed set, colourful costumes and smooth scene changes ensure that the audience is consistently wrapped up in the world the show creates.

Although the show feels a little slow to get going, it soon picks up once the exposition is over and we are introduced to the main characters and their predicaments. Lucy May Barker holds the show together as Sophie, showcasing some great vocals and lovely charm and charisma throughout, as well as brilliant interactions with the rest of the characters, including Sara Poyzer as Donna. Poyzer portrays a lovely mothering figure, and the relationship between the two of them is totally believable and heart-warming, if a little sickly sweet at times.

However, the stand out performances come from the three dads. As soon as they are introduced the whole story line picks up, and their totally contrasting characters and motives are brilliantly conveyed without being over the top and pantomime-ish, making their segments the best parts of the show as their humour bounces off each other. Matthew Ronchetti (first cover Sam) gives a great performance, especially in the later numbers such as SOS, and Tim Walton is a hilariously posh Harry. All of these characters come together for the impressive act 1 finale, Voulez Vous, featuring some stunning choreography which really manages to represent Sophie’s confusion.

Jacqueline Braun and Emma Clifford play Rosie and Tanya respectively, and perform well throughout. I think a good proportion of the audience could relate to one or the other! At times the roles seemed a little overplayed and silly, but their humour was mostly lapped up, especially in Dancing Queen and Does Your Mother Know. Braun, Clifford and Sara Poyzer as Donna also give a great rendition of Super Trouper at Sophie’s hen party, featuring some striking harmonies.

The risk of touring a theatre show of a well-loved movie is that the public may be disappointed to discover that the musical is in fact rather different to the film (especially given that in this case, the film is based on the stage show). Numerous songs have been moved around, added or cut, and there are many script alterations. But as a fan of the film (well, my 12 year old self certainly was), I found these changes surprisingly refreshing – particularly the act 2 opener: Under Attack. The production achieves just the right balance between familiarity and refreshing changes. The orchestrations also bring something new to ABBA’s music; performed impeccably by the pit band led by Richard Weeden.

Mamma Mia is a fun show which will always have an abundance of people dying to experience it live. It avoids being a blow by blow reimagination of the film (or in this case, vice versa), meaning that there is something new for everyone. This touring production features a brilliant cast who perform ABBA’s music with huge amounts of energy and talent – and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so as the show tours around the UK.

Review – Mary Poppins, UK Tour, Theatre Royal Plymouth, 10/08/16

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Photo: Johan Persson

Mary Poppins is the ultimate definition of a family musical. The timeless story, well known, catchy score and lovable characters make it a great experience for people of all ages, and the current touring production exceeds all expectations which may have been set by the 1964 film. The (unusually) un-star studded cast give brilliant performances throughout, producing an amazing interpretation of the story of the magical nanny.

Having seen another touring production of Mary Poppins in 2008, it is evident that the show has now been updated for modern audiences, through new musical arrangements and orchestrations, more exciting scenery, and enhanced characterisation. For example, the hint at a romantic attraction between Mary and Bert is enhanced in several places, making for a mysterious subplot. Additionally, the roles of Jane and Michael Banks (played very impressively by the talented Felicity Biggs and Diego Sanna) now have far more attitude and sass than before, probably allowing many parents in the audience to relate to their parents’ exasperation!

Zizi Strallen plays Mary Poppins as an unusual, mysterious and assertive figure, developing a brilliant relationship with the children as the show progresses. Her beautiful voice is showcased in A Spoonful of Sugar, as well as in the breath taking finale song: Anything Can Happen. Matt Lee delivers a good performance as Bert, despite a questionable accent at times. His cheeky charm and charisma shine through during Jolly Holiday and all of his exchanges with Strallen as Mary, allowing the audience to really form a connection with the characters.

Mr and Mrs Banks are difficult roles to pull off without becoming unlikeable, but Neil Roberts and Rebecca Lock give highly impressive performances. Lock’s incredible soprano voice is displayed in her beautiful rendition of Being Mrs Banks, and a great deal of sympathy is produced for her character throughout the piece. Roberts totally inhabits the role of George Banks, and absolutely succeeds in portraying the character’s many emotions and mind sets.

As with any show that is aimed at children to some extent, there are some sections which seem a little overdone with the sole motivation being to make people laugh. For example, the scenes featuring Mrs Brill (Beth Davies) and Robertson Ay (Blair Anderson). Despite being talented performers, these scenes feel as though the show has evolved into a pantomime. While the younger members of the audience may find them amusing, a large proportion does not, and consequently these parts seem a little out of place.

The big ensemble numbers are some of the highlights of this production. The monochrome colour scheme and clever choreography in Precision and Order are stunning, and make one of the lesser known songs one of the most visually pleasing sections of the show. Step in Time features a whole gang of chimney sweeps and some more brilliant dancing, and of course the crowd pleasing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is another stand out musical number. This production is both visually and aurally pleasing throughout, and the band (under the direction of Ian Townsend) give an impeccable performance of the exciting new orchestrations.

This production of Mary Poppins is an example of an outstanding touring production, and seems to prove that such shows can be done well on the road. The numerous updates have transformed the show to a certain extent, modernising it in the process. It proves to be a spectacle throughout, from the first sight of the Banks’ house to the final view of Mary Poppins flying to the back of the auditorium. This really is a show for people of all ages, which will undoubtedly continue to amaze audiences all over the country over the coming months.

Review – Mrs Henderson Presents, Noel Coward Theatre, London, 01/06/16

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Following a successful run at Theatre Royal Bath last summer, Mrs Henderson Presents has (sadly temporarily) found a new home at the Noel Coward Theatre in the heart of London’s Theatre Land. Seeing as an original musical is something of a rarity in the current world of theatre, it was a refreshingly enlightening experience to visit this gem of a show before it closes later this month.

Mrs Henderson Presents is based on the true story of the establishment of the Windmill Theatre, following the escapades of the various individuals involved in its journey. One of the most remarkable things about the experience of watching this show is the fact that it is performed in the city in which it is set over 70 years previously. This makes the references to World War Two and the Blitz even more poignant, and dramatically increases the realism of the piece – which contributes to its charm.

The plot’s action revolves around the lives of two women Laura Henderson (played by Tracie Bennett) and Maureen (Emma Williams). Bennett portrays Mrs Henderson perfectly, from her elderly stance and vocals to her knowledgeable and cultured demeanour. Her performance of Whatever Time I Have in act 1 is the first show stopping musical number, and her interactions with the other figures are often hilarious. Emma Williams’ Maureen is naïve and shy at first, she displays some impressive character development over the course of the show. The parallels between the two leading ladies are clever and thoughtful, such as the way that both their lives are affected by deaths in the war; and their unwavering motivations in life (as displayed in the stunning If Mountains Were Easy to Climb). Their relationship could have done with a little more stage time to properly develop a connection, but what is displayed is beautifully heart-warming.

The supporting cast do an excellent job, and this is made clear from the lively opening number Everybody Loves the Windmill. Ian Bartholomew is hilariously matter of fact as Mr Van Damm, and Matthew Malthouse is charming and believable as Eddie. Bartholomew’s performance of Living in a Dream World so beautiful and finishes the first act perfectly and poignantly. A couple of supporting performances aren’t quite as strong as these however: I’m not particularly keen on some of the comedian Arthur’s jokes (performed by Jamie Foreman), and the Lord Chamberlain sections seem a bit too satirical and over played at times. These do not detract from the overall show though, as these parts provide a certain degree of comic relief – they just occasionally seem to ruin the mood a little.

The nudity, which is inevitably a focal point of the story, is dealt with very tastefully and cleverly. The scene preceding it in which most of the characters nearly get their clothes off is one of the funniest moments in the show, and the dance with the feathers is well choreographed and spectacular. The song We’ll Never Close also features some very impressive choreography (but no nudity!) and exploits the undeniable talent of the ensemble members. Having sat in the second row with a perfect view into the band pit I have to mention the band (led by Barney Ashworth), who perform impeccably and deserve all the credit and praise they can get!

Mrs Henderson Presents is a brilliant example of a classic British musical. The way it is rooted in British heritage is great to see, and watching it in London (the city in which it is set) is so thought provoking and makes it totally realistic. The cast are absolutely incredible, especially Emma Williams and Tracie Bennett, and it is such a shame that this incredible show is closing so soon as it would have been amazing for even more audiences to get to experience this stunning show.

Review – Chicago, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 10/03/16

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The touring production of Chicago is dark, sexy and sultry, and these moods are maintained by clever lighting, impressively intricate choreography and an entirely black set of costumes. And although the marketing of the show disappointingly relies very much on the casting of a certain X Factor star, it does not revolve around her, instead positively exploiting the unmistakable raw talent of this young company.

Hayley Tamaddon portrays Roxie Hart perfectly. She fits the role so well and is hugely convincing when displaying every side of Roxie’s complex, manipulative character, interacting with the other characters in a highly realistic manner. Sophie Carmen-Jones is also brilliant as confident, sassy Velma Kelly, and the girls’ performances of My Own Best Friend and Hot Honey Rag at the ends of act 1 and 2 respectively are definite highlights of the show.

I was very excited to see John Partridge playing lawyer Billy Flynn, and he did not disappoint – despite the fact that whenever he sang I could only think of Rum Tum Tugger (Partridge played Tugger in the 1998 cast recording of Cats). His voice is a little croaky at times, but he has incredible stage presence and really fits the part. His performance of We Both Reached for the Gun with Tamaddon as Roxie is clever, amusing and effective. 2013 X Factor winner Sam Bailey gives a good performance as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton despite a questionable American accent at times, and the casting seems very apt seeing as she is a former prison officer. However, I’m sure that a considerable amount of audience members were surprised by how small the role is given the amount the producers have focused on Bailey’s name in the advertising of the show. Neil Ditt portrays a nervous and amusing Amos, and his rendition of Mr Cellophane is hilarious and forms another musical highlight.

The production is visually stunning, with a fairly simple set which practically revolves around the placement of the on stage band. The dim lighting successfully creates a dark vibe, and the fact that ensemble members sit at the sides of the stage during most of the scenes contributes to the idea that everyone is watching Roxie’s story. The ensemble is made up of absolutely amazing dancers, and there is not a weak link among them. The female ensemble work well together in Cell Block Tango, explaining the fates of each of their lovers, and the background acting and dancing is very clever and impeccably executed.

One of my personal favourite things about this production is that the 11 piece band are on stage – and not only that, but the entire set is focused on them. It is incredible to see a (pit) band so integrated into the show instead of hidden under the stage as they usually are. Ben Atkinson leads the band impeccably and is definitely the most charismatic musical director I’ve ever seen! The entr’acte and exit music become performances in themselves, and the MD even gets to interact with the cast members and has lines to say. The huge involvement of the band really makes the audience notice and appreciate the musicians on stage.

This is a great interpretation of Chicago which is hugely strengthened by the astounding talent of the two leading ladies. The set, costumes, staging and lighting all contribute to the dark, sexy vibe, and the heavy involvement of the band ensure that the musicians are well integrated into the production (which is always a good thing!). The cast are all incredible triple threat performers, and their slick, sensual dance routines ensure that this is show is one to remember.

The best way to get to know a show

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We all claim to ‘know’ shows to certain extents. Whether we know them from watching the film adaptation of the stage production, or through watching the musical live on stage, when someone mentions the name of a show, we say ‘I know that show, I saw it [insert time/place/medium here]’. But how well can one really get to know a piece of musical theatre through the passive act of watching and consuming it? Sure, if you see the same show many, many times I’m certain that the staging, songs and characters become very much ingrained in your brain, but personally, I feel as though the only way to totally understand and ‘know’ a show is through performing it.

Alright, I know that not all theatre fans are performers, and many do not have a burning desire to be up on stage themselves – many theatre goers simply enjoy watching other people in the limelight. But speaking from experience, as someone who does enjoy performing (albeit in the pit band, no way would I ever go on stage!), it’s during the rehearsal process that you really get to grips with the show: the story line, themes, lessons, characters, songs, harmonies… and so much more!

The rehearsal process is usually kick started with a read through, where all the cast will sit in a circle and read through the script for the very first time! This is always so exciting, as after an intense week of auditions, call backs and casting meetings, my fellow production team members and I get to see that all the late night debates and tough decisions were worth it as the cast begin to understand their characters, and we get a first glimpse of the show we’re creating. And as the weeks go on and the songs, dances and blocking are taught, everyone rapidly gets to know a show that they may not have even heard of prior to rehearsals! So by the time show week comes around, it’s difficult to get the songs out of our heads (having spent many a night lying awake while a medley of songs from the show I was performing at the time buzzed around in my brain, this is definitely the point at which I accept the fact that I know the show a little too well!).

As I wrote here, once you know a show through having performed it there’s no going back, and the script and songs will forever remain relevant to everyday life! This has also meant that on the occasions that I’ve seen a professional production of a show I’ve performed in the past, it’s meant so much more to me that just any other musical – because I have a history with it, and because I’m always still able to quote the lines, sing the harmonies and sometimes I even still have the music from my pit band keyboard score stored in my fingers’ muscle memory.

As of April, I will have performed 10 different musicals at school and university (Joseph, Annie, Les Mis, Oliver, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Rocky Horror Show, Footloose, Company, A Chorus Line and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), and every single one means something different to me. I would love to see all of these shows performed professionally just to experience them from another perspective from the other side of the theatre – and of course to reminisce about my involvement in each of them – because in my opinion, the best way to get to know a show is to perform it.

Review – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 11/02/16

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Having enjoyed a successful run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the new touring production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a charming show which appeals in many ways to a range of people of varying ages. And although I feel that the show lacks the wow factor to a certain extent (bar the obvious attraction of the flying car), it definitely made me reconsider my opinions of celebrities in leading roles and the combination of live theatre and screen projections.

Jason Manford plays the leading role of Caracatus Potts, and despite my scepticism regarding the potential ‘bums on seats’ appeal of a well-known comedian leading the company, he gives an impressive performance. He breezes through the Sherman brothers’ score with ease, with You Two being a particular musical highlight, and his infectious enthusiasm and heart-warming interactions with his children create a highly convincing character.

Jeremy and Jemima Potts were played by Henry Kent and Lucy Sherman at this performance, but they take turns with two other pairs of undoubtedly equally talented children. They perform flawlessly, delivering their lines, songs and dances with astounding ease despite their young ages, and I thoroughly enjoyed their subtle acting during Truly Scrumptious. Andy Hockley portrays Grandpa Potts (having seen him as Monsieur Firmin in Phantom I was very excited to see him on stage again!) and he gives a hilarious performance, providing, in my opinion, the most comical character in the show. Amy Griffiths is the perfect Truly, and her loving interactions with Potts and the children are so genuine and believable that the happy ending has a huge effect on the audience, having formed a great liking for this wonderful character throughout the show.

However, an aspect of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that does not particularly appeal to me is the subplot set in ‘Vulgaria’, and the scenes involving the Baron and Baroness Bomburst (played by Phill Jupitus and Michelle Collins respectively, who did fulfil the requirements of the characters quite well). I can objectively see that the show needs some ‘baddies’, but certain scenes, such as the samba dance, seem unnecessary and a little contrived. Sam Harrison and Scott Paige play Boris and Goran the spies with great conviction, but their intended humour seemed a little lost on the majority of the audience, despite the hilarity of their consistently brilliant disguises. Martin Kemp does a fairly good job as the child catcher, but unfortunately the script does not allow enough stage time for the character to come across as deeply intimidating.

Obviously a main attraction of this show is the flying car, and it certainly does not disappoint, creating an impressive finale as the Potts family soar above the stage. The set design has been cleverly combined with screen projections, most of which work very well in enhancing the vibrant world of the show and in portraying the car’s movement. I usually dislike the use of screens in live theatre, but this production uses the medium in the best way possible. The ensemble work very well together in many different roles, and they carry out Stephen Mear’s complex choreography flawlessly – making Me Ol’ Bamboo a definite highlight of the show. The sewer children (who are all local to Southampton) also deliver impressive performances, particularly in the song Teamwork, although the soloists among them could have done with some microphones! The pit band accompany the cast brilliantly under the direction of Andrew Hilton, and the wind and brass focused orchestrations very much suit the vibe of the show.

This production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a nice little show which has a lot to offer audience members of all ages. Any high expectations of the flying car on stage are definitely fulfilled in the spectacular finale, and Jason Manford leads the company extremely well, supported by some highly impressive performances from the child actors. However, the lack of wow factor (aside from the flying car of course) caused me to leave the theatre wanting something more from the production which can only really be described as… nice. Despite this, I’m certain that audiences all over the UK will be enjoying what Chitty has to offer over the next year!

Playing in pits: Company

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This week I’ve had the pleasure of playing in the pit band for a production of Sondheim’s Company at my university. I’ve been playing keys 2, meaning that my part is never simply your standard piano sound – it’s usually a string synthesiser, electric piano, or organ sound. As I’ve written before, I also enjoy musical directing shows (such as Footloose, which was performed at the end of last year), and I’ve realised that the experience of ‘only’ playing in the band for a show is very different to being a crucial part of the production team – which has both good and bad consequences!

When I’ve been an MD for a show before (which I have been twice, with another show coming up in April), I’ve been involved in the production for the entire process. MDs have the responsibility of teaching the cast every musical number, both complicated ensemble harmonies and solos, all while working on vocal technique and later fixing a band to play for the show and leading said band during the performances. However, being merely a band member means that myself and the other players took part in two band rehearsals, and then had the cast sing with us three days before the first performance! This was a little bit crazy, but also incredible that everything came together within that short period of time in the tech and dress runs.

To a certain extent, I welcomed the lack of pressure that I felt as a band member instead of an MD. It definitely meant that my stress levels were down, and I had far less responsibility for anything that went wrong (not that anything has, it’s an incredible show!). But on the other hand, having played the songs countless times and listened to the scenes, Company is so good that I kind of wish that I had been a part of it all the way through the rehearsal process! It was also strange that the band only heard the show in its entirety in the dress rehearsal – at this same point as an MD, I tend to know the show so well that I could play and sing every part in each scene and song! But the unknown show was full of surprises and meant that I continued to enjoy playing it night after night, and became obsessed with a couple of songs (namely Side by Side by Side and Being Alive. They’re so good).

What people often don’t realise is that the experience of playing keyboard 2 is very different to that of playing keyboard 1. Keys 1 is usually played by an MD, and it is fairly similar to the piano/vocal score which is used to accompany rehearsals before the band get involved. It tends to be primarily, or sometimes entirely, on the classic piano sound, and consists of the most important, memorable and exposed piano lines of the songs. However, the second keyboard part is often used to cover other parts in a downsized orchestration, such as additional strings, percussion, and even wind and brass lines. My keys 2 part for Company is largely made up of sustained string synthesiser chords, with a few more iconic sections – such as the striking organ sound for a wedding scene. Keys 2 parts are less demanding than keys 1, which absolutely makes sense seeing as an MD who knows the show inside out tends to play keys 1 – whereas the keys 2 player fills in the gaps left by missing instruments in the pit – and this is occasionally a welcome change for me!

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing in the pit for Company (although it still baffles me as to why we call it a pit when it’s actually a two tiered band tower), and have surprisingly appreciated the lack of responsibility created by ‘only’ being in the band rather than an MD. However, as ever, doing a show like this simply makes me want to get stuck into my next MDing experience, which will be How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Company is such a great show to have performed, and I’m in awe of the brilliant cast and production team for making it so amazing.

 

Holding the baton

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As I’ve mentioned many times before, I often MD shows with my university’s musical theatre society, and despite the far too common assumption that the MD’s sole job is to play the piano, there are, in fact, numerous other skills which need to be mastered in order to be a successful musical director – such as conducting. The MD is responsible for leading the band/orchestra of a show – whether that’s from the keyboard or from the baton. This was one of the reasons I chose to take a module in conducting during the second year of my music degree, and the process of mastering (I’m using the term ‘mastering’ very loosely) the skill over the last term has been challenging, stressful and rewarding.

The module I’ve been studying primarily focuses on orchestral conducting, so each week every person in the class gets to stand up and conduct an orchestra comprised of other students, under the critical eye of our tutor, who then offers guidance relating to technique, musicality, and a variety of other aspects. However, we didn’t start off conducting symphonies – in fact, we began by standing in a large circle making seemingly bizarre arm movements! We started conducting Bach chorales (devoid of batons), before moving onto pieces for string quartets and chamber ensembles, and then finally progressing onto movements of symphonies and the overture to an opera.

When condensed into one sentence like that it doesn’t sound like very much, but the progress that everyone’s made is really commendable, especially considering that many of us (myself included) had never even picked up a baton before, let alone learnt any beat patterns. So the fact that we’re all now able to step up onto the podium and lead a 30 piece orchestra, however shakily, is pretty impressive – even if I did get incredibly nervous before my turn each week!

My conducting module has generated a surprising amount of interest from my friends and family. I suppose it’s an aspect of music that everyone can imagine – and more it’s accessible to the general public than some of my other modules such as Baroque opera – because everyone’s seen an eccentric man in a suit waving his arms around in front of a group of instrumentalists on the TV. I’ve had to answer a lot of questions about learning to conduct, such as how the lectures work, how it’s assessed, what kind of music we do, whether I own a baton (um, obviously), and how I practise. The latter has created a great deal of amusement when my mum happily announces that my method of practising involves disappearing up to her room to stand in front of her full length mirror, and ‘waving my arms around’, despite the absence of any other people or musical instruments. Or sound. Except sometimes a metronome.

So that’s been my conducting journey so far. Although I’m still a bit overwhelmed by the massively demanding pieces of music like symphonies, I now feel as though I am well equipped to conduct a musical theatre show… probably. I’d definitely like to conduct one before I leave university, so hopefully I’ll be able to put my newly learnt baton skills to use before I graduate! My conducting module has been highly enjoyable and it’s been so rewarding to have learnt a whole new skill in only 12 weeks of lectures, and I think I will miss it now that I’ve done my final exam, despite the nervousness I experienced before my turn each week. But then, nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and I’m so glad that I took the chance to learn how to conduct.