4. Theatre MDing: what I’ve learned

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Prior to coming to uni, I didn’t really know what an MD was. I didn’t know that I’d maybe like to be one, and I certainly didn’t know that I’d go on to MD 8 shows during my three years of studying. So when I applied to be an AMD for my first show at uni (thank you, Drowsy Chaperone prod team of 2014/15), I still wasn’t sure what I was letting myself in for. I’d like to think that I now know a fair bit about MDing (musical directing), so here goes:

MDing is not just one job. It is many jobs.

The title ‘MD’ means that you direct the music of the show. So you tell the cast what to sing and how to sing it, and tell the band what to play and how to play it. But there’s much more to the role than just bossing people around! Most MDs also act as rehearsal pianists before the band comes in, and the conductor for when the band are involved. This means that the MD has to carry out two completely different roles between rehearsals and shows, which is TERRIFYING. When I had to conduct a show earlier this year, I felt so thoroughly unprepared because while I knew the music inside out, I was so used to playing it on the piano, not conducting it for a 12 piece band! Other jobs include leading vocal warm ups, making cuts and adding repeats, and liaising with other prod team members. So onto the next one…

The cast recording will almost definitely not match up with the score. Sorry.

There is nothing worse than coming into a rehearsal (a bit underprepared, oops), and realising that the choreographer has worked very very hard to make up a dance to suit a certain song or dance break on a cast recording… which doesn’t match up with the score in front of you. I’ve since learned to comb through the score before rehearsals even begin, but this is such a laborious task, and even if discrepancies are spotted, the MD then has to explain how many bars are added/missing, and often disappoint the choreographer in the process. I’m aware that this makes it sound like choreographers are hard to work with – they’re not and I’ve worked with some wonderful choreographers! It’s just very annoying when this happens. Argh.

Vocal warm ups will become anthems… and sometimes they will have dance routines.

Every rehearsal starts with a vocal warm up (except one time when I forgot), and these vary from the technical scaley ones to the funny tongue twister ones. I’m not really sure where we get these warm ups from – I’m pretty sure they’re sort of spread around in little MD circles as we impart our knowledge onto one another! ANYWAY, one of my good MD friends at uni introduced a warm up called Ba Bey Bee Bo, which *somehow* got its own dance. (Note: the choreographer was not involved and no bars were added or cut).

During breaks, everyone will flock to the piano.

Now, I don’t really get this one. Picture the scene: we’ve been rehearsing for a few hours, and the director announces that it’s lunch time. The MD leaves the piano stool and BAM – 5 cast members are crowded around the keyboard, desperate to get their hands on it and play some choons. Sometimes this results in an awesome jam session, but sometimes it just results in everyone else leaving the room!

No one else really understands your job.

Whereas most people know what a director does and how they do it, and what a choreographer does and how they do it, not very many know how MDing works. This seems to create an air of suspicion around MDs themselves, and I enjoy this. Not only does one get a fair amount of street cred from being able to play the piano, sometimes people seem a bit mystified by the ability to read music. It’s good fun, and sometimes makes it easier to gloss over mistakes…!

So yes, there are a few things I’ve learned through MDing 8 different shows while at uni. I have certainly learned a lot, and that’s very much down to all the other fantastic MDs I’ve worked with while doing these shows (Becky, Joe, Gem, Andy, Izzi, Ben, Dave, Robbie <3). There’s always more to learn, and I definitely hope to do more MDing in the future, but I’ll always check whether the cast recording matches up with the score first. (Disclaimer: it probably won’t).

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Review – Guys and Dolls UK Tour, Mayflower Theatre, 21/05/16

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Guys and Dolls is one of the classic musicals that all theatre lovers should experience – and thanks to the current UK tour (alongside its recent runs in the West End), this has become possible for a new generation of theatre goers. This production combines impeccable vocals with lively dance and movement routines to effectively convey the stories of two (eventual) couples, with a stellar cast performing many iconic roles.

The vibe and era of the show is immediately made clear in the opening number, which although a little structurally confusing at first, features vibrant costumes and choreography, before introducing some of the main characters. This is partially to blame for the fact that the show feels a little slow to get going at first – but it settles down in the missionary centre scene where Sky (Richard Fleeshman) and Sarah (Anna O’Byrne) perform I’ll Know, which is a definite musical highlight. Both of these performers are perfectly suited to their roles and each other, with Fleeshman providing the epitome of a gorgeous leading male, while remaining manipulative and difficult to read. O’Byrne’s Sarah begins naïve and vulnerable, but her character development is evident by the end.

The focus of the plot jumps between various characters, often falling back to the relationship of Nathan Detroit (Maxwell Caulfield) and Adelaide (Lucy Jane Adcock). Caulfield gives an assured performance as the nonchalant, laid back gambler, and his whole aura, stance, and gravelly New York accent suit the character perfectly. His interactions with the generally intentionally irritating Adelaide are the source of great amusement throughout the story, and Adcock acts her way through this challenging role with ease and conviction.

The ensemble choreography in the show is so impressive. The dance sequence in Havana is definitely one of the highlights of Guys and Dolls, with dance and movement conveying such an intricate portion of the plot. It is often difficult to know where to look on stage because of the sheer amount of things going on! This section is also where O’Byrne’s acting really shines through, as her character of Sarah suddenly becomes wild and uncontrollable, while Sky remains cool and collected throughout. A special mention should go to the littlest male ensemble member, whose acrobatics and lifts were visually spectacular in several dance numbers!

Vocally, the performers are flawless. Despite a few unfortunate microphone issues at this particular performance, their diction is great and the harmonies are well projected and balanced. The most famous number from the musical, Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat, brings life and vigour to the latter half of act 2, with some impressively high vocals from Jack Edwards as Nicely Nicely Johnson, and more clever choreography. Seeing as this song may well be the only one that audience members are familiar with prior to attending the show, the production team have really gone to town with the performance of this show stopping number, and the results are stunning.

A few lengthy scenes seem a little drawn out and unnecessary, such as the long gambling scene towards the end of the second act, although this may be partly down to the subject matter of the show. The brass and reeds based orchestrations are perfect for the show’s era and totally make the music come alive from the depths of the band pit, accompanying the cast brilliantly.

This touring production of Guys and Dolls is nothing short of fantastic. It is absolutely a crowd pleasing show, with some catchy musical numbers and captivating choreography. The casting is perfect, with not a weak link among them, and the ensemble are used very well to convey certain moments through both dance and blocking. It is great that this classic musical is touring and based in London once again so that new audiences can be introduced to it.