Tom – Blog 2: The Role of the Musical Director

It’s always a slightly nervous experience stepping into a room full of people you’ve only just met knowing that in three months’ time you’ll all be working together to put on ten brand new plays over a period of seven days, as part of the ten year anniversary of a fantastic theatre festival. When production day came around it’s safe to say I was a tad hesitant due to the frantic little voice in my head shouting things such as: ‘Don’t do anything wrong and embarrass yourself!’ ‘What if the production team don’t like you?’ ‘Have you put your name badge on upside down?’ and so on; but all my fears were dispelled when I met Jayne and Chris who welcomed me into Team Vera with open arms from the moment we first met. Even though this was the first day we had spoken about the project there were already a few remarks made about the potential of utilising my skills as a musician and composer within the play due to the fact it can prove very expensive to use popular songs within a production due to PRS rights etc. I decided to review the script over the course of the next few days and make notes of where music needed to be included.

By the time we had our next production meeting I had come up with some conceptual ideas for music that could be used within the production, but did feel a little bit nervous about sharing ideas at this early stage.  Although I have done composition work in the past I’ve had a lot more time to plan and prepare on my own before-hand. When composing I can become very focused on my individual contribution to a production rather than standing back and seeing it as a collaborative effort. This can be an equal curse and blessing. In the weeks that followed I was to learn a great deal about the necessity to share and discuss ideas as part of a team which has had a massive impact on my understanding of the role of the composer within a theatrical production.

In the end, after plucking up the courage to share my conceptual ideas, I decided to put myself forward for the role of composer and musical director on Vera Dymond via a formal application process. I felt it was necessary to do this in order to establish a clear difference between my role as a FITD intern and the role I was applying for as I knew other people were interested in scoring the play and I didn’t want to give myself an unfair advantage simply because I was already a part of the production team. After some deliberation, my application was successful and I began to work towards creating a full score for the performance. After further reviewing the script and doing research on the characters and their backstories I felt I had enough content to understand what would be needed within this production. I imagined Vera at the height of her career, performing at the North Pier, with a live band backing her, singing the great songs of the time, her voice a mixture of sadness and determination contrasting with where she has ended up. Rehearsing old clichés in a garage before performing in a run-down pub with only a karaoke machine and her future replacements as back up. From my interpretation of the script I came up with the idea of having the score performed by a live band rather than pre-recording the music in order to try and re-create that sense of being in a Blackpool venue during its hay-day. My vision was ambitious to say the least but I felt like making such a statement would give the play a unique selling point.

Over the coming weeks I began to develop songs and incidental music that I thought subtly reflected each of the three characters I was writing about. I felt the script told the story of three voices, each with their own anxieties, fears and dreams interacting with each other, at first they are very discordant, but by the end of the play as the relationship between the three characters improves they become more harmonious. I tried to ensure that this narrative was reflected through the music throughout the play too, with one particular song progressing throughout from an out of time mess at the start of the play to a slick, well-sang show tune by the end. To ensure that the music was best suited to the vocal ranges of the three actresses I attended rehearsals during the run up to show week daily and developed the songs alongside them, allowing them to input ideas to make sure that the songs were as suited to themselves as performers and singers as they possibly could be. Chris, now appointed director, asked me early on to set delivery deadlines for each piece of music throughout the rehearsal process. I’ve worked to deadlines before, but usually there has been some leeway in the exact date that things have been delivered. Due to the tight turnaround times this couldn’t be the case on this project. Throughout the rehearsal process I had to learn to meet these set deadlines come what may. This was a very important lesson for me to learn. As I previously mentioned, I can sometimes isolate myself by focusing on my individual contribution to sound design, but by having short deadlines to work with, and being in the rehearsal rooms on a daily basis to consult with the production team and performers I found that I wasn’t able to focus on my work as an individual. Instead I found that I needed to showcase new ideas and lyric suggestions at each meeting and then continue to develop them alongside the rest of the rehearsals so that the actors felt confident with the songs. This was a much more natural way of working and ensured that when we came to the final week of intensive rehearsals (when the full band joined the performers) everyone was already well versed in their songs and it took considerably less time to run through sound cues etc. I learnt a great deal about the role of the composer during this time and that you must always ensure that there is a constant dialogue between your role and the rest of the production team, particularly the director and actors, in order to achieve the best results and create a piece that amalgamates each person’s input in order to achieve a clear artistic vision. Improved communication through set deadlines is definitely something that I will take forward with me into future work.
Tom – August 2014