Music in a piece of theatre should sometimes go unnoticed. Subtly underscoring the stage events, adding atmosphere, crystallising moments. But sometimes it should be slap bang in the middle of everything! And that’s what we’re going for in this production of Swallows & Amazons.
The whole show is a bit like a carefully curated concept album. A pretty eclectic one, but all very much from the pen of one composer and lyricist Neil Hannon, frontman of The Divine Comedy. It’s a really wonderful score and it’s my job as Musical Director to make it sound the best that it can.
When casting the show, Damian, John and I were blown away by the level of musicianship that was on display and it’s been pretty exciting to gather together such a formidable bunch. But rather than hire people based solely on what instruments they played, we were very keen to assemble the best company we could and then mould the music to their skills. So I’ve been working with the previous musical arrangements of the show and then adapting things to suit us. It’s exciting, it means the sound we make will be our own, and consequently a little different to the show’s previous incarnations.
Actor-Musicianship (at its worst) is using multi-talented people as a cheap band. But at its best it heightens the theatricality of the experience. When you know it’s all live and being played right there in front of you, what could be better? I’m not really bothered so much by you just being impressed by what an actor can play. What we really want is the cumulative effect of all this great music, played and sung by great actors on a beautifully designed and crafted set – like a wonderful live gig that has a touching and imaginative story in and around it. The best thing is that it’s really fun to play. I’m hoping that enjoyment will come across to you.
Also the universality of music is so important. It doesn’t matter about the age or experience of the audience member, music will often speak to them on a deeper level than sometimes text alone can’t manage. But it’s all ultimately about telling a story. That’s what actor musicians do best of all I think. To be a good actor you need to be a good reactor, a good listener, and there are no better listeners than musicians. It also creates a great ensemble feel to the whole show as it truly does rely on everyone in the room to create each moment, supporting the action musically and then stepping into the scene to continue the story as your character.
Having said all that, it takes a lot of hard work to make it happen! If you think learning the lines was the tricky bit, just imagine adding all the musical dots to your ‘to-do’ list. Then on top of that, chuck in a bit of puppetry, some boat manipulation and a cushion fight and you’re somewhere nearer to what the cast are putting themselves through!
Musical Director (Swallows & Amazons)