What a Music Director does

As I have returned to musical theatre work over the last eight months, I have been asked from time to time “Just what does a musical director do?”. And since last week’s little award, and after several reviews of Jerry Springer: The Opera mentioned everyone involved with the production except the musical director, I thought that a brief essay on the role of the music director might be in order.

In the theatre world, a producer assumes financial risks, deals with publicity and marketing and ticketing and concessions and so forth, gets out the audience, and then (a producer hopes!) makes a profit.  The producer may or may not be heavily involved in the artistic side as well.

An artistic director generally sets the tone for the company, and certainly for the season, and hires key personnel to meet the AD’s artistic vision.

A director is responsible for all artistic decisions for a particular show, including overall tone, mood, visual appearance (costumes, lighting, set), soundscape (incidental music and sound effects, for instance) — in short, everything on stage.  Much of this work is undertaken in collaboration with a scenic designer, a costumer, a props manager, a make-up and wig artist, a sound designer, a composer, a lighting designer, and the other folks with particular expertise.  But the director reigns supreme. In many companies, the producer is also the AD who also directs all of the shows.

For a musical, the director usually relies on a music director who is responsible for the overall sound of the show.  Here are examples of the MD’s activity, in somewhat chronological order starting after a show has been selected:

  1. Assist in casting, checking singing artists for their appropriateness for a role by examining range of voice, color of voice, flexibility of voice, range of pitches, and overall fit for a part.  Can the person carry a tune?  Keep a beat?  Demonstrate the ability to produce various vocal colors?  Does the actor’s voice sound right for the part?
  2. Lead initial music rehearsals.  Many musicals will start with several days of music rehearsals before the actors ever read the script together (a ‘table read’) or start blocking (putting the script together with movement and intention, on the stage).  During these music rehearsals, the actors learn parts, balance harmony, develop the ‘sound’ of the show, deal with textual inflection and word meaning and dialect and character, and (at least in my rehearsals) figure out that diction does not mean that every consonant is hyper-pronounced. The MD develops the ensemble as well, helping all the actor-singers fit the soundscape, learn the releases (“since you can’t see me, we are going to hold that note for six beats, then take two beats of breath, and then go on”), nail the appropriate consonants, and polish the big choral numbers. Actors make the songs fit their characters under the guidance of the MD.  The MD usually does all of this from the piano, where he (in this case, I) set tempos, learn cues, and start to work with the director on the pacing.
  3. Continue to develop the sound of the show in blocking rehearsals.  The show’s director takes the lead in these rehearsals, but often consults with the MD on aspects of the music as they relate to movement or character.  During this process, the MD is also further guiding the pacing of the show, figuring out vamps and cues and repeats and segues and the like.  And this also means working with the choreographer, who may have ideas for dance that are totally at odds with the music’s feel or beat or flow!
  4. Prepare the orchestra or pit band.  The MD is often the contractor of the musicians who will play the score, determining what instruments to use, who to have play those parts, and in so doing putting together more of the sound of the show.  Many times a musical score is written for 12 or 15 instruments, but a company can only afford five or six or seven, so determining what instruments are going to play is a key part of the process of building the show’s soundscape.
  5. Combine the actors with the band.  This is usually done at one or two rehearsals called a sitzprobe, or ‘sitz’ for short, where the actors hear the orchestra for the first time and sing along, but without a lot of movement and without dialogue.  The point is to get on the same page every single person who will be making music during each performance.  During the sitz, the MD helps both actors and band know to hear, what to listen for, and how to determine cuts and jumps on the fly.  Over the final few rehearsals, the MD also balances band with actor-singers, and shapes the sound of the band: trumpet louder here, bass hold that note longer, flute take that up an octave for better effect, drums give us more high-hat, etc.
  6. If the show is a new one, the MD will also have been instrumental (no pun intended) in changing verse & chorus into a fully-fledged theatre song, writing arrangements, perhaps writing orchestrations, building in dance breaks and vamps and segues, and even suggesting “this spot really needs a song” or “that song goes on too long, or needs a key change before the last bridge and chorus.”
  7. Run the show.  The company thinks the stage manager runs the show.  But MDs know that we run the show.  We start every song based on a visual or verbal cue.  We set the tempo.  We determine how long to hold the money notes.  We keep the cast together with each other and with the band, whether the song be a solo, a duet, a family scene, or a big company number.  In most modern shows, dialogue takes a back seat to singing, so the band rarely has more than two minutes off before another song starts. The MD, either a conductor or a pianist/conductor, keeps all of this moving.  And if an actor flubs a line, or forgets an entrance, or jumps ahead in a verse or chorus, the MD must make a split-second decision on what to do and how to communicate the nearly-instantaneous fix to all the musicians involved in that song.

I’ve seen MDs who say “Well, my score says to do this, and so I think we should,” but a good MD understands from the beginning that the score we have in front of us is what was developed for Broadway or Off-Broadway, and is reflection of that production team’s needs and solutions, even down to what key a song is in or how many bars of intro the song has, or how long the dance break is.  The best MDs come up with solutions that fit their particular houses, casts, directors, and particular situations.

Throughout all of this, an MD keeps a steady hand, a steady tempo, and an even demeanor, since the MD is being looked to for leadership and inspiration.  Calmness, serenity, grace under pressure, reliability — these are prized traits for an MD. Of course this little essay just scratches the surface of the many decisions and duties an MD undertakes at every rehearsal or performance.  But the outline I’ve presented truly reflects the MD’s job over the course of a show.

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