11 Things I Learned From Being a Music Director
1. Keep A Live Band, But Electronic-fy Them
I’m mostly talking about drums because they’re the loudest and most difficult to control. The worst thing you can do with a musical is not hear the singers over the band. If the audience can’t hear the singers, you don’t have a chance. You lost the game at level 1. You didn’t even get to a checkpoint. It would be like putting a huge pole in the middle of the theater so people have to look around it to see the stage. If the band is electronic, you can achieve intensity without having to relinquish control over their volume. Some productions try to do this with a drum shield. That looks ridiculous. We have the technology for an electronic drum kit to sound like the real thing now. It’s worth the investment (get ones with the mesh heads, not rubber). Proof: When I was in New York for the Fringe Festival I saw some shows in the same small theater as our show (Players Theater in the village) and the band was too loud. You’re left feeling frustrated and unable to even judge the show because you couldn’t hear it.
We have the technology to be able to hear everyone. And to fix this cat.
Closely related: I've heard of a trend of theater companies using 100% pre-recorded backing tracks. This makes me a bit nauseous and I definitely will not be attending those productions because I think you lose a HUGE amount of energy in a live stage show without a band. It's called Musical Theater, not Karaoke.
2. If You Have a Larger Theater, Mic Your Actors
…if you have the budget. A cheap body mic will be spotty (because frequencies, because you’re TRANSMITTING SOUND THROUGH THE FUCKING AIR AND IT’S COMPLICATED), and it’s distracting enough that it would be better to scrap the damn things all together. But invest in quality audio (or rent it) and save yourself a million headaches.
Closely related: Know something about audio and sound design. As a music director, it's ultimately your job to make sure everything sounds good, which includes amplifying those sounds. You don't have to be a wiz, but as someone in charge of that department, you should know the lingo and how to ask for the things you want from your sound people with knowledge and respect. It will also earn you friends in the tech world, which is always a good thing, and usually means they'll share their adult substances with you...
Nick Burns: How sound people will treat you if you can't throw down with audio.
3. Use Mirrors and Voice Memos
Mirrors are important, and voice memos are important. If you want to grow and improve as a performer, you have to be willing to see and hear yourself with distance. If you can see yourself dancing or while delivering lines, you can make changes to improve it. Same with recording yourself singing or delivering lines. If you’re someone who wants to be a great performer who hates to look at themselves in the mirror or hates the sound of their own voice back to them, you better get over it. There's a scientific explanation for why our voices sound different to us, and it's actually a psychological oddity that we don't like it. In fact, when we don't know it's our own voice, we *do* like the sound of it. It is absolutely uncomfortable at first, but it’s just like anything else that requires practice. What if a writer never read a chapter over once she wrote it? If you can watch yourself and listen to yourself and make corrections and edits, it will make you better.
5. The Anxiety of Producing a Drama vs. a Comedy is Different
A dramatic show is so much harder than a comedy, but a bad comedy is so much harder than a drama. The doubt that creeps in with a drama (to me) is “oh my gosh, no one is going to take away any value from this – it’s depressing, it’s a downer, etc. why are we telling this story?! We should be wanting to make people happy!” But the value in a drama is just more complicated than the desire to make people happy. It’s difficult to be secure in wanting to tell a story that people may or not connect with on a serious level. The intention is easier to critique. With a comedy, you’ve got “well, I was just trying to make you laugh!” With a drama, if the audience doesn’t connect with it, you feel like you have to apologize for ruining their mojo. You feel like you wasted their time.
A metaphor in four parts to describe my anxiety
A Good Comedy: The star of the party, always entertaining people, telling jokes, being ridiculous. (See: Xanadu)
A Bad Comedy: The guy trying too hard but he’s harmless. Still entertaining, albeit in a different way than he intended. (See: Xanadu the movie)
A Good Drama: A good friend who let’s you cry on their shoulder and help you work through some tough life shit, and still has a sense of humor you can count on. (See: Bare - thank god)
A Bad Drama: A new acquaintance who came to the party and starts telling your friends about their cousin-in-law’s throat cancer and you’re left just feeling sorry for them and having no idea how to segue into a lighter topic and wishing there was a polite way to leave. (See: Anne Frank The Musical --- yes, it's a real thing and it was pretty uncomfortable)
The risk of giving the audience a bad experience is highest with a drama, and the longer the story, the higher the risk too.
The bad serious musical you produced that everyone hated.
6. An Audience Is Strange Magic
The brilliant actor Dave Durbin, who I am lucky enough to call my son and my friend, recently said to me “I feel like we’re just masturbating up here now. It’s time to do the real thing.” Some actors need an audience to give the right amount of energy. There are many actors who ‘wow’ everyone with a whole ‘nother level of performance when they’re in front of a crowd. It’s this amazing connection of giving and receiving energy exchange that happens when there’s a live audience. I’ve said many times that I am not a TV person. Nothing against it, it’s just not usually my thing (although Orange Is The New Black is, I admit, my crack). I enjoy movies, absolutely, but even though I studied film in college, I’ve grown to love live performances the best because of that live energy. The energy of an audience truly changes the performance. It's a beautiful thing, and good energy from the audience always makes the show better.
Mama Rose doesn't need an audience...but she wants one.
7. Actors Are Fragile And Strong In Different Ways
Sometimes the best, most confident actors are the most insecure about their performance. Sometimes an actor struggling to get a part right is strong enough to change it to make the show work. Setting a collaborative spirit and a precedent for open communication early on is helpful in achieving success. However:
8. Directors Aren't Always Right, But Know How To Tell Them
Directors don’t always have the best ideas or solutions. Actors often have brilliant ideas to fix a staging problem or timing problem, etc. that a director wouldn't think of because they're thinking about 100 other things. However, actors should be careful making suggestions in front of the whole family. A director, in order for show to work, must maintain leadership status, else CHAOS. If you are Actor stepping outside the lines, you are at risk of Director bopping you back down like a Whac-A-Mole. If you have a suggestion and the cast wasn’t asked if they had any ideas, consider bringing it up 1:1 with your director. He/she will appreciate the respect for their leadership and be more ready for what you have to say.* If it’s time sensitive and you must bring it up now or forever hold your peace, the polite way is to ask a question and use a tone that respects the director’s authority. Trust me, you’ll get better results this way.
*This is not limited to the Actor/Director relationship; it goes for anyone questioning or giving unsolicited advice to the person in charge at the time.
I don't want to cast these cows in my next musical. Mostly because of the bad pun.
9. Theater Families Are Both Forever and Transient
It’s the type of thing that everyone involved knows can’t last forever, and because of this heightened sense of awareness about that, we are more motivated to make the most out of our social time together. It’s like YOLO every day. Because of this, show crushes are a thing that you can count on with every show. They’re beautiful and a thing to be relished. The thing about theater is that every performance is different. It’s about living in the moment on stage, so that translates easily to living more in the moment off stage. Then there’s the whole psychology of watching someone. That sweet distance of watching someone perform is a potent ingredient in any recipe for attraction. (Proof: Watch This TED Talk that explains the show crush phenomenon imo) Enjoy your show crush, but recognize it for what it is, and be careful making any drastic moves in your love life until show is over. This is not to say that a show crush can’t become something more (often enough of the time it does), I am simply advising the hazy veil of show mode be lifted before any mad pursuits, else risk potential embarrassment.
10. Things Have a Tendency To Work Out
But it doesn’t mean you’re not valid in freaking out. Before opening night, there’s still a list of 20+ things that need to be fixed. Freaking out gives you the energy to fix what needs to be fixed. At the same time, if you have the right team, these things always work out because the freaking out happens and motivates us to make it work. It's a paradox.
Keanu doesn't get it.
11. Calm Your Tits, It's Not Broadway
If someone isn’t getting paid (or paid enough) because community theater, calm your tits. I can’t speak for the other levels because I’ve never done one, but I assume since the money stakes are higher, sometimes you gotta come down hard on people because business. But when it comes to community theater, whatever brilliant idea you have or vision or ego you need stroked isn’t worth blowing up at people. The ultimate goal should be a positive experience for everyone, and a close second is putting on the best show it can be. A good show and a positive experience for everyone are linked of course, but the balance can be difficult to strike. This is my philosophy and it extends to business for me, too. There isn’t any creative or business endeavor that’s worth making a tense atmosphere, and it can be a struggle to maintain that perspective. There will always be tense moments, but it all comes back to the love for the art in the end. I’ve been fortunate to work with brilliant, kind and professional director teams and actors as well. Bring the drama on stage, not off.
My favorite meme of all time.
You may be wondering where #4 is. Well, it was originally intended to be "Sticking With The Original Text Is (Usually) Better Than Your Version" but I waffled on that too much to be confident in my argument. So I decided to be rather meta with it and edit it out from the original post. I'm interested in any thoughts on this from readers.