orchestra pit

“Imagine the outcry if there were no awards for Director.”
“Imagine the outcry if there were no awards for Choreographer.”
“Imagine the outcry if there were no awards for Designer.”
“Could there be an outcry when people realise that there is no award for Music Dept (MS/MD/Orch) in Musical Theatre?”

These were the tweets of acclaimed British musical director Mike Dixon a few months ago, in response to this year’s Olivier Award nominations. But is this simply attention-seeking for yet another member of the creative team? No way! It is a sad reflection of where the theatre’s priorities lie; the Oliviers, and other established awards such as the Tonys and Whatsonstage Awards, have neglected the role of MD/MS for some time. It wouldn’t be unreasonable then to cite American MD and co-founder of Theatre Music Directors Geraldine Boyer-Cussac, in her open letter to the writers of SMASH: “While in the classical world, conductors are given the respect they are due, theatre music directors have been second class citizens for far too long in their own community.” A good example of this is the current West End revival of A Chorus Line. It is a fantastic show about dancing and the pain of Broadway; however, it was a real shame that the conductor was not given the opportunity to bow, publicly accepting all the hard work he had put in to make the performers sound so brilliant. In this sense, the MD is just one of a handful of demanding trades: a conductor, orchestrator, accompanist, vocal coach, technician, collaborator, and creative, so it would be plain silly to not give him or her the due respect.

Another key reason to support the MD is surely the very title of musical or music theatre. To take A Chorus Line again, Hamlisch’s score drives the storyline. So, in contrast to what may be a schmaltzy, summary-type overture, it is a piano upbeat which opens the show. Jokey it may be, but it is that short motif which sets the tone for those relentless accompaniments of the opening dance audition. Then, the moving ‘What I Did for Love’, a simple yet honest ballad about sacrificing everything for the sheer love of theatre, an actor’s life totally actualised in song. It takes a skilled person to truly get to the musical and emotional core of these moments.

With the theatre’s constant emphasis on the triple threat, as well as the need for glitzy productions, I fear that the MD and its associated roles will be pushed further into the pit. Fortunately, there is still hope. Such is the graft of the job that many conservatoires, drama schools and universities offer courses and scholarships for this. In addition, the Drama Desk Awards reinstated the Orchestration Award last year, due to popular demand.

Now, I just hope that the Oliviers will implement some key changes…


Image: orchestra pit 2001