The Art of Conducting… Musicals (Part 2)
I would be remiss if I did not start out with another conductor joke:
What’s the definition of an accelerando? The conductor turning two pages at once.
In my last article, I compared orchestral, or “legitimate” conducting, with conducting for the theatre. Starting from the observation that orchestras of both the symphonic and musical theatre varieties often disparage their leaders for their lack of conducting skill, I suggested that theatrical conducting may be more susceptible to orchestral dissatisfaction because theatrical music directors are not as likely to be trained in conducting, legitimate or otherwise. I also noted that some theatre music may not demand a conventional approach to conducting, but still it necessitates a communicative, capable conductor in almost every performance situation.
In this article, I’ll explore what is good theatre conducting, and put forward some ideas on how the current state of the “art” may be improved, to the benefit of students, pit orchestras, and audiences alike.
Hopefully the initial hiring of a music director will take into account his or her stylistic strengths and weaknesses, but when doing a musical, a general musician might have to venture into a musical area he or she has not entered before (a classical pianist conducting Smokey Joe’s Café, or a jazzer as the music director of Beauty and the Beast); this is often the case in academic theatre. (Side note: interestingly, some of the best conductors I have seen are working at the university level. They are highly trained, highly skilled, and highly experienced at working with orchestras, doing many concerts a year and working with students and professionals both. Whether their other music direction abilities are equally excellent depends on the school and on the person. In many cases, the mechanisms of music direction are specific to the academic program or system in which they operate.)
With the many musical styles that make up the musical theatre repertoire, the conductor must first assess the music at hand. Based on the score, what sort of conducting is required? In many situations these days, instruments are often (regrettably) replaced by samples and patches. What is the role of the conductor when the orchestra is made up of several synthesizers and a few acoustic instruments? Under what circumstances should a conductor try to play and conduct simultaneously?
Factoring into these decisions will be a further assessment of the extent to which conducting will be helpful, regardless of style. Is there musical material that is highly expressive, or flexible in tempo, either on stage or in the pit? Are there passages that are difficult to keep together without a conductor? Are there meter changes so constant and complex that it helps the musicians to see the beat patterns? Or is the music so groove-based that the bass and drums are better timekeepers than a baton?
And further, there are the pragmatic concerns. How will the orchestra see the conductor? Live or on camera? How do the orchestra members hear each other? Live or through a sound system and headphones? Are there click tracks in use? Prerecorded tracks with which the orchestra is playing and the cast singing?
The default position in musical theatre is to conduct only that which is necessary. A good deal of the score will be well-rehearsed, and the center of attention in performance is the stage, not the accompaniment or the conductor. (It’s different when a show is not well-rehearsed.) Therefore a basic, clear, only-when-necessary beat pattern is what most conductors need conduct, if that. Yet there can be a great deal of content in a minimum of gesture; just watch some old Leonard Bernstein videos if you need proof. It is this that elevates the really good theatre conductors: the ability to employ just enough information and variety within their conducting to make the music precise and musical. Especially with conductors now often more easily visible on a miniature video monitor than by an open sightline, the economy and focus of a conductor’s gestures are paramount.
Accurate, clear preparations are always essential—with no extra motion other than the needed beats—and clarity is of utmost concern; it must be maintained throughout all phrases, sections, songs, and scores.
What makes a beat clear? It depends on the music. Examples: In a rigid rock or pop beat, it’s a combination of exactness and feel, an accurately clicking ictus in one’s hands combined with a mostly internalized dance in one’s body. In a lush, string- and woodwind-laden texture, there’s no less accuracy in the beat, but a lot less click. Icti can “give” a little, and the resistance in the conductor’s motions is more akin to swimming underwater than to hammering a nail. And there’s a lot in between, of course, but exactness of time and appropriateness of gesture factor into all conducting. Complicating the issue is that in reduced and piano-based orchestrations, the sorts of beats described above must often be executed without using one’s hands, which, are occupied by keyboard playing. When this becomes a problem, it is a likely indication that there should be a stand-up conductor. But the head and other body parts and motions, including breathing, can shoulder (so to speak) a lot of the conducting workload. Conducting is never just in the hands or baton, anyway—it’s in the face, the body, the soul, and the brain.
Beyond the basics, there are more levels to conducting that can be applied in the theatre, again, usually according to style. You might want to conduct a brassy, big band sound more as a jazz band conductor would, counting off the time to start a number, grooving along with the band more than leading, with occasion tempo corrections or affirmations, and offering periodic reminders (cues) of fills and colors. If there are big choral numbers on stage, you should probably conduct the chorus accordingly, as a choral conductor would, manifesting in your conducting phrasing, breath support, and indications of diction to make the text come through. In a dramatic setting, you will adapt your conducting to suit the emotional content of the song, or score, just as in all music. A theatre conductor should characterize the music being played, not as visibly or ostentatiously as a symphony conductor might, but enough to infuse the performance with the correct dramatic and emotional energy. You can energize a performance with your energy on the podium (or bring it down with unnecessary negativity or lack of clarity). Regardless of style, you as the conductor are there to highlight the salient features of the music and the orchestration through aural, intellectual, and gestural attention to those moments. In doing so, you “share” these specifics with the audience and with the musicians and singers whose performance you are leading.
What a conductor in the theatre should not do is tune out emotionally or perform in a mechanized, unemotional or disconnected way. Accompaniment has significance, even if it is inconspicuous, and orchestrators carefully craft their work to be responsive to the stage. A show’s need to be conducted with musical integrity and dedication does not diminish over time; in fact, it may become more necessary over time as energies ebb and flow during an extended run.
One does not have to be a great conductor to be the music director of a show. One does not even need to be a great conductor to conduct a great orchestra. What one does need is a responsible approach to conducting. A masterful knowledge of the score and its parts. An understanding of what the musicians and cast need from the conductor, and a means of executing it in a universally comprehensible manner. The ability to communicate musical ideas quickly, effectively, and cordially with people who perceive and treat music in many diverse ways. And, naturally, a profound understanding of the show on stage, how it operates theatrically, what it means emotionally, and how best to enact the music in such a way that it is wholly supportive of the greater enterprise. The basic techniques of conducting are not hard to learn, but the key is in melding them with the other elements of the art.
So what will it take to get you, the I-wanna-be-a-Broadway-conductor, to Broadway, or I-wanna-be-a-music-director to where you can not only succeed professionally, but perform responsibly and effectively? Probably not conducting chops alone. Conducting alone might land you a job as the music director of some show, somewhere, but in today’s theatrical climate, it’s not nearly enough. (That is not to say that there is no value in studying legitimate conducting to prepare for musical direction; on the contrary, it is an excellent training ground, especially operatic conducting.) Rather, you’ll need a combination of skills, and just as importantly, you’ll have to apply those skills to the right people in the right situations at the right time. Inasmuch as you can create your own luck or determine your own fate, you must put yourself in as many situations as possible in which these elements have the opportunity to meet and coalesce, in which the stars will align, and your sun will rise. If you feel you are deficient in some music direction-related skill, then go out and study it!
This applies particularly to conducting. Not just the physical act of waving hands or head, but the theory and intent behind it, the rehearsal and pedagogical skills, the mastery of a score, and the art of musical communication. Conducting lessons would be a good place to start for those who are primarily pianists, instrumentalists, or singers. Though beating time does require some modicum of grace and physical strength, pretty much any musician can do it once they understand what it’s about and how it is interpreted by those around them. Conducting the orchestra and cast well will not only earn you the respect and cooperation of your colleagues, but will ensure clean, connected, and consistent performances. For me, nothing compares with music coming out of a baton, or my hands, but we all have to earn the privilege with each new job we take on.