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So You Want to Produce a Musical (3): The Role of the Music Director

By FRANK BEHRENS
ART TIMES
Sept, 2004

If you have been following this miniseries, you know we have already chosen our play and our director. And remember, please, we ARE, you recall, talking about musicals. I have seen the following situation really cause serious problems. A music director will of course want the best VOICE for a particular role, while the stage director might be thinking more of the ACTING aspects of the role. One might argue in a musical that the VOICE is certainly paramount (consider the fat opera soprano disputes at present) and that the musical director must prevail. On the other hand, if the person involved sings fabulously but is totally without any stage presence and cannot read lines, it would seem another actor had best be considered. Maybe Joan Sutherland could get away with wooden acting, but Julie Andrews would not have gotten far with that handicap.

In researching this aspect, I interviewed a vocal teacher here in Keene, one JoAnne Mead, who has been music director to many a local musical. Many times she found herself in harmony with, once or twice in conflict with, the stage director. She says, start with the obvious. The MD should be familiar with every note of the score and determine what kind of voice goes best with each role, no matter how small it might be. At the auditions, she looks for people who will fit those roles physically and vocally at both ends of the scale.

In a musical, she maintains, the audience expects good voices, not great acting. So when push comes to shove, the better singer but poorer actor should get the role over a poor singer who can act well. The exceptions to this rule would be Henry Higgins and Pickering, L’il Abner, and other such “character” roles. Bloody Mary, for example, can be as crude as can be; but she must sing “Bali H’ai” beautifully. Rose in “Gypsy” must be a belter who can sustain that level all through the show. (A singer might sound great at audition and fail badly during the full performances.) Here a lovely voice is not right for the role. But in a role such as Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha,” a trained voice is absolutely necessary.

Once rehearsals start, the music director should insist that the first two weeks at least be devoted entirely to the music. Since some singers cannot read music, they must go over solos and choruses many times until the notes become part of their thinking. This is also the time to stress enunciation and projection. If they start by ignoring consonants, they are bound to do so all through the performances. The chorus members should have fun during these workouts. Especially difficult passages should be edited so they can all feel comfortable with them.

JoAnne stresses that warm-up before each rehearsal should not concentrate only on the scales. “You need word warm-up, animation warm-up, range warm-up, breath warm-up, and agility (i.e. projection) warm-up.

Once the words are memorized, indeed even as they are being memorized through repetition, basic acting skills should be emphasized. All too often, amateur choruses sing deadpan, reacting to nothing but their blocking. This is an area in which both stage and music director must agree.

Here I am thinking of a master class given by opera director Jonathan Miller in which he staged a chorus from “Rigoletto” in such a way that instead of sounding like a “singing telegram” (as Miller put it) it sounded like they were giving the news not only to the Duke but to each other too, nodding and agreeing that what they were saying was true. In short, making things believable.

The question of miking the singers is a troublesome one. Very few untrained—and far too many trained—singers can project their voices and be understood. (Many cannot do either.) My correspondent believes that miking should be a last resort. People want to hear human voices (regardless of what electronic sounds Broadway gives them at $90 or $100 a shot) at a performance and not a metallic substitute coming out of side speakers that also disguise the location of the person on stage who is singing at that moment.

Of course, it happens that amateur groups (and professional ones on tour too) wind up in venues far too large to fill with some or all of the weak voices in the cast. If mikes are needed, for pity’s sake use them judiciously and do not simply turn them up to “10” and let it rip. (The Spinal Tap amplifiers, you will recall, went up to “11.”)

OK. You have the show, the stage director, the music director. Now the problem of choreography demands attention. It will get it next month.

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