Job titles and awards

The controversy that erupted over omitting the 2013 Drama Desk award for orchestrations echoed loudly in the world of professional music direction.  Several musicians, in voicing their support for the orchestrators, questioned why there were no music direction awards for Broadway shows.  Other cities (Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and soon possibly London among them) have such awards, but not New York, supposedly the hub of commercial theater in the United States, if not the world.

My book, Music Direction For The Stage: A View From The Podium, chronicled an attempt in 1994 by music directors to instate a Tony award for music direction.  Our futile effort was a clear illustration of the ignorance of the nature of our work, even to those theater artists working right alongside us. (I confess not knowing a thing about lighting, but I had always thought that everyone else thought they knew everything about music.  I guess not.)  Among the many obstacles to an informed appropriation of such an award is the job title itself, and its variants.  Without knowing, by means of correct crediting, who is really shaping and rehearsing and performing the music for a show, it is tricky deciding on whom to bestow the honor of being the “Best.”  Music directors can’t even seem to decide between “music director” and “musical director.” I will express a very strong preference here for the former, an opinion I know to be shared by the overwhelming majority of my colleagues. Invert the words to see my rationale: you have either “director of (the) music” or “director of (the) musical.”  I rest my case.

But that’s not the real problem.  The bigger issue is the music director/conductor/music supervisor confusion.  Again, some background.

To my knowledge, the first appearances of the term “music supervisor” (as it applies to theater; in film and TV it means something else entirely) were in the early 1980s, coinciding with the onset of the British “megamusical.”  A company of a show such as Cats would open in the West End with a certain music director at the helm, and its success would spawn other companies (tours, international productions, etc.).  The producers, and perhaps the original music director, would engage for these subsidiary companies a “music director” to do the work of rehearsing the cast and orchestra and conducting the performances.  The music supervisor would oversee the work to ensure its adherence to the original musical, dramatic, and choreographic values, and retain the creative and administrative decision-making power.  He or she, as opposed to being salaried, would receive a fee and a royalty or annuity for the run of the production(s) he or she supervised.

The model caught on quickly as more and more shows sent out multiple companies (even the flops–there was money to be made on the road, regardless of the notices from the London or New York critics), and persists to the present day.

The music departments of Broadway shows come in many shapes and sizes.  In fact the original Broadway Cats had not only a “production music supervisor” and an “associate production music supervisor” but a “production music director” in addition to the regular old music director.  And several conductors and associates.  Yes, I still have my Playbill.  It’s a really crowded front page of credits.

It was easily rivaled by my former employer, The (original Broadway) Lion King.  We had: a music supervisor (actually an orchestrator for the film or stage who ended up not supervising any subsidiary companies), a music producer and associate music producer, a music director (me), associate, and three assistants, a choral director, and so many composers, orchestrators, and lyricists that the mere size of the music team revealed it to be a completely collaborative effort, with lines freely crossed, and not limited to the music team.  (Since my time there The Lion King on Broadway has had three different music supervisors–myself and two others, who also mounted all the additional companies–but only one music director.)

Have we music directors been doing ourselves and our profession a disservice with our chaotic credits?

If so, it’s not just us.  Neither the title “music director” nor “music supervisor” is recognized by the musicians’ union.  In the Local 802 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), only the conductor is recognized and covered by union benefits and protections.  (There has been talk of benefits on supervisory fees, and music directors/supervisors have negotiated benefits and pension contributions in personal contracts.)  Music directors, of course, do much more than conduct.  Sometimes they receive credit and compensation for what they do beyond conducting (vocal and dance arranging, score preparation, incidental music, and so on), but sometimes they do not.  Regardless, the music director is ultimately responsible for all aspects of the music for a production.

In an original production, there really is no need for a “music supervisor” as I have described it.  If the casting, the coaching, the conducting, and the playing are all done by a group of people, that is simply a customary division of labor.  All of these tasks belong to the job of music direction, and it’s actually quite common for a music director to delegate tasks to an associate or rehearsal pianist, for example. Often one member of the music team is simply best equipped for a certain job–playing the piano, for example, or dance arranging.  If we as music directors did try to attach the specific duties of all out team members to their corresponding titles, we would likely occupy disproportionate space amidst the program credits.

The notion of a music supervisor is Really Useful (get it?) only when actual supervision is required, such as when a recently hired music director is rehearsing a national tour of a Broadway show.  The new music director cannot help but inject his or her personality into the new production, but a music supervisor can act as a guide and keep the “re-production” in line with the writers’ and director’s original intent.  If one individual chooses to assume more than one job title, no problem.  In reality it makes perfect sense for the music director to become the music supervisor of subsequent productions.

I am standing by my word on one production I am currently working on.  Despite my representative’s encouragement to embrace the title of music supervisor for the initial production, I am staunchly calling myself the music director (the general manager likes this, too, maybe because he thinks it will represent some sort of savings), and if I leave the post, I will replace myself with someone called a conductor.  If there are subsequent companies, I will become the music supervisor, and engage a separate music director.  (Will everyone please send the show some great vibes so this actually happens?  Thanks.)

Let’s begin our award hunt by clearing up the titles, or making sure that those giving out the statues know that the terms may be interchangeable.  Really, if we want to get an award for our work, it really should be for the work.

Joe Church


June 29, 2014

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