Without cracking too many terrible “oh no it isn’t” puns, it’s nearly time for panto season again! With not long to go until the clock strikes twelve for Cinderella, or Peter Pan takes flight once again, preparations and rehearsals are going on all over the country.

A musical director on a panto is often very different to the MD of a musical theatre production, or a variety show like my last project. It usually involves a lot more work in advance, as the budget tends to be tighter for a panto. Producers in panto don’t give a big budget to the music side of things, with a typical panto band consisting of anything from a small three piece of two keyboards and a drummer, to about five people including keyboard, bass, guitar, drums and a trumpet or clarinet. The low budget can sometimes be a good thing, as a production with the purpose of just being good fun (like a panto) doesn’t need a full symphony orchestra. However, being a musician, I always think a few more live musicians would improve the show.

This low budget often leads to the creation of a ‘click track’, which basically means other instruments and maybe voices are pre-recorded to make the sound of the show appear a lot bigger. An example of this would be in Hairspray – if you skip to around 4:16 in this video, you will see the MD of the Broadway Production of Hairspray starting off the click track, which you will then hear feeds through the musician’s headphones to keep them in time with it.

Whilst I personally think click tracks take away from the beauty of live music , they are used so much in theatre these days that they have to be accepted as part of the musician’s role.

As well as the use of click tracks detracting from the live music, I heard from panto MDs of several top name productions that last season backing tracks were used in the absence of a live band. In my opinion, this completely takes away from the standard of a production, but it is done because it is cheap to produce, meaning that it is good for low budget shows.

Another duty that the MD often takes on is working with the script writers to choose the songs that will go in the production. This can take many meetings, months in advance of the show, and can be a long process as the songs have to fit in with the plans of the director, the set designer, the light designer and, most importantly, with the plot.

Panto also sometimes requires original music to be written for the production. Whilst the composers can get stuck into writing a genius piece of work, it’s also important to retain the comedic element as that is what panto is all about! I am big fan of original panto songs as they can be very cleverly written and I always end up humming them for hours. However, as panto isn’t taken as seriously as other theatre forms, it can be a shame that some of the original songs aren’t used for a musical of their own.

In the next few blogs I’ll be looking in more detail as panto season approaches, as well as doing some case studies of this year’s productions.

Image by Mike Saechang.