Songs in the Key of a Major General

Michael Waterston, Ordway 8/6/15

Music is all around us. From our our homes and our cars, to restaurants and cramped elevators, it’s part of our culture, our society, and our individual personalities. Our Spotify and iTunes playlists are points of pride within our friend groups.

Music has the power to stay with us long after the final notes fade. Why else do we end up humming the same familiar melodies throughout the day? Some musical phenomena are difficult to explain. They dominate popular culture for a fleeting moment before joining the infamous annals of one-hit wonders and regrettable trends. Their catchy lyrics and infectious rhythms hold our attention longer than common sense should allow.

But where some pop-music idols fall, there are musicians whose works transcend time and taste. Their music engrains itself within the fabric of society, permeating across industries, and providing the background music for our lives. We may not know the lyrics, or even the song titles, but we recognize the melodies almost instantly. William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are two such artists. The Victorian icons created fanciful works that have been reproduced the world over since the late 1800’s.

The Ordway is proud to have the wonderfully talented Steve Tyler join us as Musical Director for The Pirates of Penzance. Steve was kind enough to share what it takes to be a successful Musical Director.

What is the Musical Director’s job within the production?

Steve: It’s not what people often think it is. Most of the time when you come to a production, you might see my head and hands popping out of the pit and conducting the orchestra, which is definitely part of it, but there’s a completely separate part that involves teaching the score to the rest of the cast, and I don’t think that’s something which most people think about. Our actors all have wonderful singing voices, but not all of them can read sheet music, so I’ll have to be much more hands on with dictating the tempo and key. Then there’s some cross-over with what James (James Rocco, Ordway Artistic Director) is doing and how he wants to interpret the songs.

Some of it is very rudimentary, for example just plucking out an individual note and telling an actor to “sing it like this”, but that’s because once we include the ensemble’s singing with the orchestra it will make for a much more impactful experience.

Once I’ve worked with the actors and gotten them comfortable with their parts, I’ll rehearse with the orchestra. That part is a little more straight-forward. Obviously, musicians all read sheet music, so that’s not a hurdle, but they also don’t need to worry about memorizing their lines, or knowing their placing on the stage, so the work is much more focused.

Then, during the actual run of the show, the Music Director plays the role of traffic cop. You’re the engine driving everything forward. You dictate the rhythm and maintain the balance, but you also have to be aware of what to do if disaster strikes (like someone forgetting their lines), so it involves a great deal of thinking on your feet. You always hope that things go to plan, but it never does because it’s live theater and that’s why we love it.

As the Music Director, you have to be aware of hundreds and hundreds of minute details that all affect the show in their own way, but you also have to keep in mind the bigger picture. That is probably the most difficult part about this job- trying to steer all of these individual elements toward the same goal.

Do you typically work with the actors first and orchestra second, or is there some overlap?

Steve: I work with the actors first, typically two to three weeks out from opening, and then I get the orchestra maybe one week out. Again, that’s mostly because of the extra work that the actors are putting in, because everything they do is seen by the audience, so their every move has to be examined and thought out in order to have the greatest impact on the performance. With the orchestra, they can come in and we can “short hand” things, so to speak. They’ll play their parts and I can just say “I’d like to hear more of you there,” or “I’m going to be in 1 here, then 3 there,” and this will probably sound like gibberish to anyone who isn’t a musician on some level, but that’s what makes working with the orchestra a bit easier.

How set in stone are the musical arrangements? Do you tweak them at all once rehearsals begin?

Steve: This is a new orchestration for The Pirates of Penznace that’s only been done once before, and it was done to sound more like a 50’s or 60’s Broadway musical. The original work (from Gilbert and Sullivan) was obviously much more classical, and was actually a pastiche of opera numbers. There’s a number in Pirates called, “With Catlike Tread,” (which later inspired “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here”) but when Arthur Sullivan wrote it, he was actually spoofing Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”, so there’s a long musical history here that we’re lucky to be working with.

We don’t change much from the original orchestration, but we might alter the tempo here or a note there to make sure everything fits within the bigger production.

When you’re working with an iconic performance like Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance is there any pressure to either remain true to the original work, or maybe alter it just enough to keep it fresh?

Steve: I haven’t felt that with this production. Pirates has such a fun score and witty dialogue that it lends itself well to new interpretations. I alluded to this earlier, but we all know these tunes. We might not know how or why we know them, but they’ve become so ingrained in popular culture and they’re so catchy that we’re able to recognize them almost instantly. It’s exciting being able to work with something that has that kind of staying power, and will keep you humming the melodies long after you leave the show.

I’ve heard rumors that you’re actually on vacation from your “real” job right now, is that true?

Steve: Haha! Yes, that’s true. I was actually a Broadway Musical Director for 17 years, and I loved doing it, but always had this desire to explore film composition. Unfortunately, once I began exploring that avenue, I quickly found out that it wasn’t what I thought. I wasn’t as involved in the creative process as I was in the theater. However, through that experience I found my way to film editing and discovered that I wasn’t half-bad at it. So that’s what I’ve been doing for about eight years now.

What is it about this particular production that drew you back?

Earlier, I alluded to how you have to manage all of the tiny details without losing sight of the big picture, but that’s something that came to me only after I took a little break. James called me up last year and told me he was going to be working on Pirates, which is a show I’ve always wanted to work on, and it helped that James and I enjoyed working together in the past, but really I wanted to see if I could approach the show differently after what I’ve learned and how my understanding of theater has evolved over the years. The cherry on top is that I also have some family here in St. Paul who I don’t get to see very often.

So do you have plans for your next vacation yet?

No, not yet! We’ll see how this one goes and take it from there.

The Pirates of Penzance will take to the Ordway stage August. 4-16.

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