After catching up with panto drummer Nick Anderson in my last blog, I thought I would have a chat with a musical director as the panto season draws to a close. Dean Austin has been Musical Director on the Spamalot UK Tour, the original West End production of Zorro, as well as on the premiere of Stand Tall at the Landor Theatre, so he is definitely qualified to provide an insight into the world of panto. This Christmas time he has been working in Aylesbury as Musical Director of Dick Whittington.

I’ve heard that being Musical Director on a panto can present many challenges as well as great fun and crazy experiences, but I was keen to hear from Austin how he found it. I started by asking what his favourite thing about MDing a panto was. “The fun element of it – having to respond to whatever chaos is going on onstage. Also hearing and seeing the kids in the audience absolutely loving the whole experience.” Austin admitted that his favourite thing could also be a nightmare, “especially when you’ve got 900 screaming school kids – it’s not one to do with a hangover!”

Panto is a huge favourite with the schools, and sometimes calls for shows at the “far too early” time of 10am. I was interested to find out whether things like early starts are considered when songs are picked, as well as who chose the songs for the show Austin is working on. He explained to me that it is the job of the director, writer and musical supervisor to pick the songs, mainly to fit the script and to be recognisable to the audience. Austin named his favourite song in Dick Whittington as Take That’s Rule the World – “it’s absolutely magical”.

A lot of pantos have really cut the budget in the music department, sometimes with as little as keyboard, drums and a lot of click track. I personally think that this detracts from the quality of the panto, however if the decision to put a panto on was dependent on having a small band, it is understandable why some producers do this. Austin’s show is produced by First Family Entertainment, with a five piece band: MD/keys, bass, drums, trumpet, and reeds (sax, clarinet and flute). Whilst this is quite big for a panto these days, Austin went on to tell me that not all the music is live, and some click track is used to provide strings, guitar and backing vocals to help boost the sound in the bigger numbers.

After providing an insight into the works of a panto, from misbehaving school kids to a bit of Take That, all that was left to do was find out Austin’s favourite panto joke: “What do you call a Spanish flasher? Senor Willy!”

Dean Austin was Musical Director of Dick Whittington until its closure on 31 December 2011. You can find out more about him and keep up to date with what he’s up to in the musical world here.

Image by Jimmy Flink.