Director's Diary: Directing Musicals v Musical Directing
GMT’s current production, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, sees regular cast member Alasdair MacRae take the directorial reins for the first time. In this fortnight’s edition of his rehearsal diaries, Alasdair talks to his Musical Director and longtime friend Erik Igelstrom about who’s more important, the Director or the M.D...
ALLY: Hey Erik, thanks for taking the time to help me explain why my role on the production team is far more important than yours, and why therefore I’m a lot cooler than you too.
ERIK: Nonsense Ally. As we say back home, “Nu ska du allt få dina fiskar varma!” Bring it on.
Which came first: the idea for this article, or this Chicken Ranch-themed battle image?
ROUND 1: WHO CHOSE THE SHOW?
ERIK: Me, I suppose - back when we first got the opportunity to put on a musical together, I realised that Whorehouse ticked a lot of boxes: the right size of band, the right size of cast, and so on. Also, country music only needs a few musicians to pull off well compared to a lot of musicals, and I really loved the thought that we'd be able to get this show to sound exactly like it was meant to sound, toe-tappin' fiddle and everything! We would never have chosen this show without my years of musical experience and logical reasoning skills.
ALLY: Ah, but we searched through a whole heap of shows that could have been done very well with a small band; it was the story, and the themes, and the loveable characters that cinched Whorehouse for us. A light-hearted and seemingly simple tale of a local brothel that nevertheless explores the role of women in an oppressive patriarchy, the influence of the media, and takes a stab at religious hypocrisy and government corruption? Really, without my exploration of the text or my storytelling passion, we couldn’t have pulled this show off.
ERIK: Excuse me. You were the one who fell in love with the songs before you had even read the script - I remember you raving about them before I had really listened to them more than once or twice.
ALLY: ...b-because of their context in the really great story!
ROUND 2: WHOSE JOB IS HARDER?
ERIK: Sorry Alasdair, but do you require years of classical piano training to do your job? Do you have to incorporate music theory and vocal technique into your rehearsals, do you need to TEACH PEOPLE?
ALLY: Well, the way I see it, being an MD is a bit like maths class - it’s not easy, but there are right and wrong answers. If someone’s out of tune, you correct them. If someone has a particular range you can assign them to the vocal part that suits them best - all objective, calculated decisions. Also, er, it involves counting a lot. Just like maths.
Being a Director is more like English class - it’s not easy either, and to make things even more challenging, everything’s subjective. Your own past experiences shape the way you feel about how a character behaves. Should this scene be serious, or played for laughs? I don’t have the luxury of right answers - I have to make all these decisions and hope they’re the right ones! And there’s the skill of communicating with your actors; imagine trying to instruct twenty people to paint a picture the way you see it in your head. THAT’S tough.
ERIK: Fair point; I guess maybe I'm the civil engineer to your architect... You get to let your imagination run free and draw abstract shapes in the air, and I’m the one who has to figure out where the plumbing goes and how to make it not fall over.
ALLY: We are KILLING it with the metaphors today.
ERIK: But according to that argument, you might as well just buy a Musical Direction Robot. Think how dull and lifeless the music would be then! My job is actually… Er, Ally?
Oh my GOD! We could replace the entire band someday...
ALLY: ...What? Ah, sorry. Sorry. I was thinking about robots. Continue.
ERIK: I still have to use my own judgement about how to make the music come alive, where it should grow or retreat, and how it can reinforce the story - and then how to convey all that to the cast... and the objectivity thing only really applies to a singing ensemble; when it comes to soloists, I want them to discover their own take on a song. Just like you with the actors’ performances.
ALLY: Huh. I guess you’re right.
ROUND 3: WHO HAS MORE INFLUENCE OVER THE SHOW?
ALLY: Well, this might have to go to you actually.
ALLY: It’s called a ‘musical’, not a ‘scriptsical’. So regardless of what I come up with, it’s the songs that are so iconic, and really, that’s what an audience remembers about a piece of musical theatre. Out-of-tune singing is excruciating to sit through, but a fluffed line may not even be noticed. If we don’t nail the songs, the audience probably won’t care when the Sheriff entered really dramatically from up-stage-right. I guess at the core of it, you might be more important.
ERIK: But what gives the music its real power is the context in which it appears in the show. I teach the songs and can ensure everyone is singing with good technique and musicality; but the songs only exist to help tell the story anyway. And all these singers will be playing characters - characters you help the actors shape. Not to mention the blocking, costumes, stage design - all these things you have influence over! Way more influence than the MD.
ALLY: But at the core of it, with no MD, we’d just have a play.
ERIK: Without everything the Director brings, we’d just have a concert.
ALLY & ERIK: …..
ERIK: So basically, the roles are different but equally important, and require working in perfect unison to create the best experience for the audience?
ALLY: I suppose so. We have to be an unshakeable team so we can manipulate people into helping us achieve our goals, like in House Of Cards.
Both of us are blonde, pale and feminine, but Alasdair loves barbecue ribs and speaking in dodgy southern accents more than Erik.
ALLY: It’s settled then. We are both as important as each other, and therefore both as cool as each other too.
ERIK: Which, to be specific, is not very.
ALLY & ERIK: HIGH FIVE!
The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas will run from 5th-9th May 2015 at Webster’s Theatre in Glasgow - more information can be found here.