Since we began our series taking an in-depth look at the daily lives of people working in theatre, there’s one role we’ve been dying to showcase: the Musical Director. It’s a lofty title and deservedly so when you factor in that this one person is responsible for arguably the most important element of any musical, the music itself. From helping find the best vocal talents to working with the director to interpret the material and even taking to the stage each performance to lead the way, it’s one of theatre’s most responsible positions.
To find out more, we spoke to Bend It Like Beckham The Musical’s Nigel Lilley who filled us in on the (very) busy life of a West End MD.
The first thing I do every day is:
Check my emails. I double check whether there are any extra rehearsals happening that day and whether we have any actors or musicians away on holiday or sick. I have no idea how shows functioned before the days of group email, though I’m assured they did!
My place of work looks like:
I share a small office with our company manger Sunita. Our cast normally pop their heads through the door as they arrive so it can get quite crowded, but it’s a good way to keep tabs on everyone. During the show I conduct from a position above the stage; it’s rare for the band to have such a great view of the stage and the audience.
An average day for me…
Completely different depending on what stage of production we’re at. My first task as Musical Director of a show is to audition the actors, working closely with the composer, director and other creatives. I generally listen out for good pitching and healthy voices in the first instance, and then anyone who peaks our interest is sent material from the show so we can ensure they fulfill the specific demands of the score. In these early stages I also work with an orchestral fixer to book the orchestra.
Moving into rehearsals, I teach the music to the company and work with the director on the interpretation of the material.
My next (and favourite) task is to get the orchestra up to speed with the score and then put the cast and orchestra together at the Sitzprobe [the rehearsal when the actors and musicians first play/sing together].
During the run of a show, we sometimes have extra afternoon rehearsals for understudies to make sure everyone is ready to go on at a moment’s notice if need be. Other than that we have a warm-up at 18:15 to get the cast’s voices and brains in gear for the show or at 13:15 on matinee days. In Bend It Like Beckham, during the performance I’m up above the stage in the pit area with the orchestra, conducting and play the piano. It’s my job to set the speeds of each number and to cue musicians and singers to (hopefully!) keep it all together!
The people I work with mostly are:
The company manager Sunita and our resident director Shelby. I obviously work closely with the actors and musicians; even though we’ve been running for over 150 shows I still give out lots of notes to keep everything shipshape. Every week either I or my associate will watch the show to make sure lyrics are clear and that bad habits don’t creep in over time.
The tool I can’t do without is:
My notebook. Though often the notes I write in the dark of the auditorium during a show watch are pretty illegible!
The best part of my day is usually:
There are always certain moments in a show that you look forward to conducting. I particularly love the big wedding sequence in Act Two as we have some really virtuosic playing from everyone in the band (listen out for the violin solo!) and then there is a magnificent moment towards the end where Howard has mashed up pretty much all of the tunes in the show – it’s really thrilling.
The worst part of my day is usually:
Cycling home after a two show day can feel like hard work…
I usually finish work at:
22:30… Then I head home to eat. Luckily my other half is Spanish so he doesn’t mind eating at midnight!
The most glamorous part of my job is:
We do get some interesting people come to see the show. We had the film director John Landis in the other night with his wife. And of course opening night parties are great fun. The Beckham opening night was very glitzy (from what I remember).
The least showbiz part of my job is:
Getting changed into my show clothes in our tiny company office. Everyone is quite bored of seeing me hopping around in my pants…
My work mantra is:
Never complain about feeling tired. Exhausting as it can be doing eight shows a week, at the end of the day we are all doing jobs we dreamed of doing as kids. There’s no excuse not to give 100%.
The advice I’d give to anyone wanting to do my job would be to:
Practice, practice, practice; particularly for an MD job where you have to play keyboard as well as conduct. When you’re working with world class musicians as I am on Beckham you have to be able to hold your own, it’s not just about waving your arms around!