It would not be a bold statement to say that without the music director, there would be no musicals. In terms of theatre and film, one cannot exist without the other and that is simply a fact that must be acknowledged. I only know of four female music directors in Winnipeg, MB. I bet, that there aren’t even more then twenty-five in Canada, and one should take the time to look up just how many female music directors are your town or city.
As a Music Director, when does your job on a project start?
Well it really depends on the situation. I’ve had to step into a fully cast show right before rehearsal. I’ve also been hired before the project is even announced. Ideally, I’ll have show materials prior to auditions so the creative team can work collaboratively to cast our version of the production.
During auditions, what is it that you as M.D. are looking for?
Understanding of style, storytelling through song is a big one! Accurate rendering of music combined with individuality. Vocal flexibility. I want to be interested in what your voice can do or what you are trying to say.
What is your favourite moment when working on a show?
Is it cliché to say Opening Night? The energy is always electric. I also really love holding auditions! At that stage the world is your oyster and you start to see how your version of the show is going to come together as your put the puzzle pieces together.
How does the rehearsal process work? Is there a band right away?
I wish! I’ve had a couple of occasions where the drummer was able to come in early. But the standard in Winnipeg so far, is the whole show is rehearsed with just a piano until we hit the deck. It may differ in bigger centres. Most contracts start with music rehearsal days. It’s smartest to start with the biggest/most complex numbers that use the most people. That way they can move onto to choreo/blocking those numbers which always take the most time. Also, you can delegate some of those rehearsals to a rehearsal pianist if you’re lucky which allows you to spend that time with principals and smaller numbers.
Do you have a pre-show ritual or routine that helps you before a show?
Spot check any tricky moments from the night before. I usually play shows on a keyboard but rehearse at home on grand pianos so the feel can be quite different. Check in with the cast and make myself available as necessary. I do 10-15 minutes of stretching and physical warmup; wrists, arms, shoulders so I can be warm and loose. If it’s a tough play or if I’m playing a lot during the day, I throw on some Voltaren so I don’t get too tight.
Where are you and the band normally sitting during a show run?
My running inside joke is that I must always have something in my teeth because I’ve gotten 4-5 contracts where I’m not actually visible to the cast…. Upstage Right, Twice on a upper story that sat behind the cast, In the wing, Upstage covered by sets, in the basement haha! The show that was cancelled due to the pandemic, there were going to set us up in the lobby and pipe me in! In a “traditional” proscenium theatre there is an orchestra pit and the conductor is positioned in a way so that the cast and the orchestra can see them.
The other placements have all been super fun but they require a different way of rehearsing. You have less control as a conductor and are going off of other cues.
Are show notes something that happens during the show or is it only during rehearsals?
I’ve given the occasional show note. But primarily during rehearsals. I always strive for consistency!
What or who helps give you inspiration and how do you apply that to your work?
During a show? The director and actors themselves. I’m a strong believer that the best result or idea is already there and it’s up to you to facilitate the production of that. If you’ve cast a show well, there often isn’t a lot of need to put your own ideas on someone. Chances are they’ve got a good handle on it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of framing the musical language into a context that they might be more familiar with.
Other times? I always feel motivated connecting with other people. They can be from different industries but when I see others working hard it inspires me to step up and do the same.
I’m also a big reader with eclectic taste. I have lots of ideas and love to learn! I’d like to think I apply that openness to my work.
How many Music Directors are there in Winnipeg? How many are women?
I don’t want to forget anyone but I’d say there are ~10 of us working in Music Theatre. About half are women.
Do you find the there is not a lot of work for Music Directors? Is there an interest for younger artists?
There is work but you have to be really flexible. There are only a couple of big shows a year in Winnipeg so you need to diversify to make it a viable full time career. Most MD’s are pianists and do some form of teaching. There is a Collab program at the U of M that I know a few people have gone through in the past years. It’s really such a random career, there is no one way to come to it and MD’s tend to have varied backgrounds in music.
For me, the job of Music Director is the most important when working on a musical. They are there from start to finish, they don’t leave after the first show like some directors or choreographers do. Why does there seem to be a gap in the system when congratulating or awarding those in the music field? Do you find there is a sense of stigma around your work?
I don’t think there is a stigma, but I think that there can be a lack of understanding of what the job is. As you said we are there start to finish, so in that way it is unique. The function of the job also changes. We go from creative team to conductor/musician role. At bigger theatres, they have a whole Music Department so the job changes show to show and there are more people to fulfill the needs of each production. Because there are fewer musicals per year in any given season I think sometimes people don’t necessarily know what to do with us. The unionization is also different from Directors, Actors and Choreographers so it’s a bit of a different beast. The skill set is unique and in general I think you find less crossover between fields.
Lastly, a lot of MD’s train “classically” in music to some degree. I think there can be stigma towards Musical Theatre itself in some of the post-secondary institutions and music circles. It’s a style in it’s own right and different than opera; a lot of outdated ideas are still floating around that it’s somehow easier or lesser than classical music/opera. I’m hoping those will start to change as more and more people work as crossover artists and I had a really positive experience around some peers a few years ago who were very open and interested in both.
Is there something that you know now that you wish that you would have learned as a emerging artist?
That implies that I am somehow established haha
Mostly, there are things that I wish I had done or worked on in the past and then a whole lot of things I know I am still learning and working on for the future. I wish that I had played with bands and worked with more conductors in my earlier days as a musician.
Behind the Scenes is a series dedicated to show appreciation for the thousands of crew members around the world who work in the arts. From backstage and behind the scenes or even in the office building at your local school, they are the ones behind the curtain helping to create the magic.
This article is another instalment in the Behind the Scenes series.