BY CARY GINELL
In addition to featuring local performers in musical theater and plays, VC On Stage also celebrates the work of the folks who are behind the scenes. Costume designers, set decorators, choreographers, and propmasters are only a few of the many talented people needed to put on a show. Today we begin a two-part series on the role of the musical director, the person responsible for teaching the songs to the performers and coordinating their work with the orchestra. In the case of the Conejo Players’ current production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, the orchestra has been pre-recorded. This usually occurs for several reasons; either the theater space does not warrant a full orchestra or budgetary restraints make hiring an orchestra overly expensive.
Rachael Pugh is a classically trained singer and musician who has appeared in a variety of Ventura County musicals, including “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Les Miserables,” and “The Music Man.” After working strictly a performer, Rachael has taken the next step into serving as musical director, and as our review in the Acorn (http://www.toacorn.com/news/2013-11-21/On_the_Town/Songs_help_tell_the_story_in_Spamalot.html) shows, she has passed the test with flying colors. In this series, we talked with Rachael about her craft.
VCOS: Have you always wanted to do this?
RACHAEL: You know, I always assumed I would do it, growing up watching my mom. She did this a lot as well as directed so it seemed like a really natural leap for me. I guess I’ve been doing it all my life, but never formally before!
VCOS: Tell me more about what your mother did?
RACHAEL: She and my dad met doing musical theater at USC. I was born in California, so for the first four years she did stuff here and then we moved to Chicago, where I was raised. She actually did it mostly at the junior high level. I spent my whole childhood watching her and learning from her.
VCOS: A lot of people confuse the musical director with the conductor. Tell me exactly what a musical director does.
RACHAEL: In this case, especially with a show like Spamalot, I was, in every sense of the term, a musical director. While I did not conduct the “orchestra,” I taught the music to my cast as if they were the orchestra. Before we had auditions and before it was cast, I sat down with the score and thought about what styles needed to come through, what techniques needed to come through, and broke it down. And I was really able to direct a lot of emotion into it. You’ve got eighteen, nineteen people up there and some have never sung in a gospel choir singing gospel sections, and I wanted them to feel it. And I wanted them to believe that they were a gospel choir. At the end of “The Knights of the Round Table,” there’s a very jazzy section and I wanted them to feel that jazz sense, and I’m dating myself, but with that Manhattan Transfer blend with the heavy vibrato in certain spots and clean, cool tones in other spots. I really wanted them to see and feel the music that they were singing so that they were more of an extension of an orchestra.
VCOS: How do you work with the director, in this case Rick Steinberg?
RACHAEL: I was really lucky. Rick gave me a very long leash (laughs). It started, as it always should, with the music. The first week, it was just me and the cast. At first, that made me really nervous, not having the director there. But, it was a really smart call because they had to learn to trust that I’m going to lead them correctly. And he knew that, so it was really awesome. He said that he picked me because he trusted me, and he said that as far as making them sound good, that’s my call.
VCOS: What are the challenges with working with a recorded soundtrack instead of a live orchestra?
RACHAEL: It is hard to get everybody to relax and trust that the recording can feel live. They have to make it feel live. They have to make it feel like they are breathing with those musicians, just as you would with a live orchestra. Since you’ve played with a live orchestra, you know that you all breathe together, so I had to get them to breathe with those tracks. Getting the levels set was a challenge in itself and we were really fortunate to have Jeremy Zeller doing our sound, because he gets that part of the performance, getting the blend right, the balance, and the mix between the live voices and the recorded orchestra. It’s tricky.
VCOS: When I’m in an orchestra, we have to make sure that one ear is listening to the singers and the other ear is listening to the rest of the orchestra to make sure we are all together. But when you’re on the other end, and you’re singing to a recording, you’re basically a slave; you can’t play with tempos or pauses at all. You have to be right on target. Is that harder?
RACHAEL: I think that it’s harder to do it at first, but it’s kind of like doing Shakespeare. You can’t change the words. Some actors will tell you, “I like to take the script and learn my lines, and if I change a word here or there, it still works.” But with Shakespeare, it’s verbatim and you have to be able to feel it, and feel the freedom within the boundaries. So I think that’s what it’s like, working with a recorded track. You’re right. You don’t have the freedom to change the tempos or to pause longer one night when you’re really feeling it. But if you learn to work within it, there’s the freedom to knowing where the boundaries are and being able to move within them.
Our interview with Rachael will conclude next week. Conejo Players’ run of Monty Python’s Spamalot continues through December 14. For dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.