The Art of Conducting… Musicals (Part 1)
Here’s a familiar and favorite Broadway orchestra pit joke:
One night at a long-running show, the conductor takes ill. The associate conductor should take his place on the podium, but can’t find a sub. The assistant conductor is on vacation, and even the rehearsal pianist is unavailable. The contractor canvasses the orchestra, looking for a potential volunteer. A second violinist sheepishly raises his hand and says, “I know the show pretty well by now and I’ve had some conducting experience. I could probably get through it.” And he does, and everything goes just fine. The following night he returns to his usual spot, whereupon his stand mate asks him, “Where were you last night?”
There’s some truth in saying that after a certain point, a long-running musical can virtually run itself, and the conductor’s impact on the proceedings may lessen over time. But that does not negate the need for a conductor, nor does it justify the sort of substandard conducting that rankles orchestral musicians everywhere. (You’ll note that in this article, I am separating the act of conducting out of the overall job of music direction.)
Two recent visits I have made to orchestra pits (one at a high professional level, the other at a high academic level), as well as several pointedly relevant questions posed to me by aspiring music directors, have been a powerful reminder of the disrespect orchestra musicians often feel for their conductors. The musicians’ scorn is rarely based on personality, but rather purely on a perceived lack of leadership skill from the podium. Yet its result can be a wholly negative assessment of someone who is hired and well-paid to do something expertly—lead a band or orchestra—that he or she does not. Remember the “Peter Principle?” That one rises to the level of one’s own incompetence? This is the opinion many musicians share of the music director/conductors under whom they play. (Most of them keep their opinions in confidence except among those they trust, for obvious reasons, or until too many post-show martinis.)
Yes, this is an unfortunate situation, but not a novel one. Orchestra musicians have been complaining about conductors ever since orchestras began (while elevating others to near-godlike status). If it’s not their technique, or lack thereof, it’s their overbearing personalities, their unnecessary showmanship, their background on a certain instrument, their hairstyle, whatever. Orchestras will, on the other hand, have and show due respect for capable, thoughtful, charismatic conductors, but still will tend to shred anyone whom they think falls short. (Don’t all employees complain about the boss?)
William Steinberg, the late, great concertmaster of the Pittsburgh and Israel Symphonies, did not hold back late in life in his commentary on conductors:
I remember concerts that felt like they weren’t going anywhere – nothing moved at all. So I’d give a certain look to the principal cellist, violist and second violinist to say, “Follow me” – and suddenly the orchestra would become quite good. Then the conductor would be very happy as he thought he’d done it. Sometimes the conductor’s beat was so terrible that I had to put my eyes down, otherwise he’d have had to stop because of me. In my opinion, conducting is both the easiest and the most difficult profession. So many conductors will come on stage, cut the air with their hands and jump around, and audiences are delighted, even though musically there’s nothing.
Let’s look at the issue of what we may call “bad conducting” in light of the professional theatrical music direction world, on Broadway and elsewhere. In a musical theatre setting, the “jumping around” Steinberg refers to is replaced at times by meaningless hacking, flailing, and headbanging that leaves the orchestra and cast (and click tracks) with the responsibility of setting tempos and keeping the band together, the stage together, and the band together with the stage. That many music directors now conduct from behind a keyboard and with guide tracks has altered the landscape significantly, and added new challenges to the task of performance leadership. So has the tendency of modern theatre music to be of a kind that does not necessarily require traditional means of conducting as defined by the symphonic model. And of course, many music directors only “attain” such an important position because they are the closest thing to a music director available (much of academia, local and regional theaters, for example). But many shows still do require an honest-to-God conductor (repertoire shows count for a lot of these), and all musical shows require conducting of some sort, if only to get things started and stopped and to keep the proceedings from crashing down upon themselves, which they do sometimes, anyway.
There are some marvelous conductors at work on Broadway and beyond, and some not-so-marvelous ones as well. There are ones that have legendarily had trouble simply starting and stopping orchestras effectively and consistently. Clearly there are functions on the list of music direction job duties that supersede conducting ability. We often hear of how music directors are “great in the room,” meaning that they work very well with others in a variety of situations, sometimes tension-filled ones. We hear of music directors’ extraordinary piano skills. When a music director is also a primary keyboard player in rehearsal or performance, this is undeniably essential to successfully executing the job, especially given the great difficulty of realizing many musical theatre scores at the piano. Some music directors are comfortably attached to a star performer or director. The central notion of The Peter Principle, that one is promoted based on his or her ability in one position and not on a projection of his or her ability in a higher and more demanding position, is in the nature of music direction as a profession, though thankfully not entirely. And it is not always a bad thing: otherwise, where would good new music directors come from? It is also certainly in the nature of music direction to learn on the job.
But back to conducting, the topic of this essay. Conducting for musical theatre is not usually the same as conducting a symphony orchestra, or even an opera. Nonetheless its purpose is the same: to communicate through gestures, in real time, essential elements of the music that require a leader to coordinate or that are enhanced by the participation of a silent (excluding the keyboard, of course) guide and arbiter. For the most part, though, conducting for the stage is more utilitarian, primarily because unlike at a concert, the orchestra is almost never the focus of the entertainment, acting primarily as an accompanimental, i.e. subordinate, functionary in the overall proceedings, akin to a design element. (There is an extensive discussion of this topic in my book Music Direction for the Stage: A View From the Podium.)
The differences include the following:
Smaller ensembles. Musical theatre typically uses smaller accompanimental forces than does symphonic or operatic music. As a rule (all rules have exceptions, especially in the theatre), smaller ensembles need less conducting. Their members can communicate with one another more directly, listen to each other more easily, and perform as much by accord as through the direction of one musician.
Musical styles. As noted, the more that musical theatre moves into the modern mainstream, the more it adopts a modern mainstream sound, which at present is not so much orchestral, or even acoustic, but rhythmic, groove-based, and often electronic. This kind of music can also benefit from conducting, but relies more on collectively excellent musicianship and good design (orchestration, sound, etc.). And don’t forget, even when musical theatre is groove-based, it often has stops, starts, holds, vamps, shifts of feel and tempo, dynamics, and so on, all the province of a conductor.
Clicks, tracks, prerecording, and isolation. Most of the technological advances in music production over the last two decades or so negate the need for traditional conducting (clicks and prerecorded tracks) or preclude its usefulness (prerecording and isolation). Again, these are seldom absolute in the theatre, but some shows these days are run entirely on their tracks (even some of these will be conducted, to coordinate the tracks and the stage).
Execution and interpretation. One might say that the foremost responsibilities of any conductor are these. Execution is the fundamental part: the starting and stopping, the setting tempos, the keeping everyone together, the making sure everyone sings and plays when they’re supposed to, the negotiation of the time signatures, the rallentandos, rubatos, and accelerandos, and so on. Interpretation refers to the individual stamp that all conductors put on their performance of a work of music. The term has more relevance in concert music, where familiar works are performed countless times and audiences and critics are seeking fresh takes on a repertoire of warhorses. In the theatre, a good deal of the musical interpretation comes from the director, the producer, and the actors, and quite often the writers are involved in the process or available for questions, rather than sharing space with Beethoven and Brahms. Still, even in a musical, each conductor makes a unique contribution. As evidence, how many of us who have worked on an extended run of a show with multiple maestri that one conductor’s show is deemed faster or slower than another’s… even when the tempos are set by metronome or click?
So what is the definition of good musical theatre conducting? What can musical theatre conductors do to improve at, and hopefully master, this easy/difficult, apparently disappearing skill? How can good conducting garner more respect for a music director from his or her orchestra and cast? These and other questions will be answered in Part 2 of this blog, so tune in next time!