BY CARY GINELL
We continue with our interview with Conejo Players musical director Rachael Pugh about her work on Monty Python’s Spamalot.
VCOS: How does your vocal training help you?
RACHAEL: Oh, it helped me so much. There are several people cast in the show who will be the first ones to tell you that they specifically told me, “I’m not a singer, but I can dance.” Being the daughter of an opera major, I’ve been trained for my whole life. I was never allowed to fall into bad habits, and because of that, people have come to me a lot; as friends or choir mates, so I’ve come to spend a lot of time working with different people, helping them achieve a level that they never thought they could aspire to vocally. Not that I’m patting myself on the back at all, I’m really not. I’m the one who’s lucky to get to work with them. But having so much in my background, I have a good arsenal to pull from.
VCOS: So, what’s the first thing you say to somebody who tells you “I can’t sing.”
RACHAEL: I say they’re wrong, first of all. Everybody can sing. Not everybody can sing opera, not everybody can sing pop. But everybody can find a way to make their voice an instrument. I mean, what’s the harm in believing? What’s the harm in trying, and giving it your best? The worst case scenario is that you’ll be right where you are right now. The best case is that you’re opening up a whole world that you never thought you’d have access to. People are often surprised at how much they can do when they believe they can do it.
VCOS: Are you working with the singers to coordinate with the different sound effects on the soundtrack also?
RACHAEL: That’s Jeremy. [sound designer Jeremy Zeller] Some of it was in there and some of it has to be felt. Like when someone gets hit on the head with a shovel, that’s rhythmic and it comes on a downbeat, but a lot of the sound effects that popped in there – a couple of them we tweaked but Jeremy’s background in improv actually serves him very well. He’s like our silent cast member, which is funny because he’s the sound guy.
VCOS: What did you learn from your mom and has there been anyone else you’ve mentored with?
RACHAEL: Something she taught me was to give visuals. There was one song the guys were having trouble getting the rhythm down, and I told them to think of themselves wading through the waves. We live in Southern California and everyone’s been in the ocean at least once. And if you have, you know the feeling that if you’re fighting the waves, you’re going to fall down or get exhausted, but if you just float for a second, you will feel yourself rise over the top and then glide on over. Well, this song happens to have a very rolling effect. That’s something my mom taught me, to put things in visual terms. Breaking it down musically, I learned a lot from Lisa Yaldezian, who I worked with in Les Mis. She said she taught it as a piece of classical music, because that’s what it was. And I thought, yeah, why can’t we teach these things as genres, especially to the people who don’t consider themselves singers. It was much easier to teach them when I used the concept of turning them into a musical instrument.
VCOS: What was the hardest song in Spamalot to teach?
RACHAEL: There’s so much of it that’s hard, but I think “I Am Not Yet Dead,” because it has two sections that are like madrigal rounds. It’s very tricky and very precise, and they are singing counterintuitive lines and there’s nothing there to help them. That was, musically, a very difficult number for them to learn, and it’s such a ridiculous number. But it’s so much fun and so silly, but it was probably the hardest.
VCOS: We know how silly and funny the lyrics are, but how do you rate the music? Is it good, musically speaking?
RACHAEL: Yes! It really is. I would love a chance to play it from start to finish. It’s really complex, but catchy. It’s not something that you can’t remember. That’s one of the ways we determine whether something is good – if it’s pleasing and memorable. But it’s very fun to sing and play, it’s entertaining, but it’s not what you expect it to be. There are some unexpected twists and some really powerful moments.
VCOS: So now that you’ve gotten your feet wet as a musical director, what other shows would you like to do?
RACHAEL: I haven’t even thought that far! This has been so much fun, I want to do whatever people will let me attempt. When I was in Kiss Me, Kate, I thought the role was written for me. Well now, I think I was born to music direct, too. It’s that same feeling. I think we have a fabulous production, if I may say so, but I’m really proud of the vocals in it. They’re tight and professional, and I’d be happy to do it just as much with The Music Man, Les Mis, and anything in between. I can’t say which ones I want to do because I want to do it all! Is it all available? Can I do it all out there? (laughs)
VCOS: And how is all of this working, juggling this with family life?
RACHAEL: Wow. Well, you know, Kevin, my husband, co-produced Spamalot. And this is his first time producing. Balancing this with a one-year-old was a challenge. I’m really fortunate that I get to be home and I’m also fortunate that this is theater. I brought Emmet to the theater a lot and he loves hanging out and listening to everybody singing, and the cast loves him also. I hope I’m balancing it well because it’s really important to me to stay true to myself. I think I’m a good mom and I want to teach Emmet that you can be yourself and have your family roles established also. But I couldn’t even have thought of tackling it all without Kevin’s help.
You can see Rachael Pugh’s bio on the VC On Stage Performers/Crew page. If you perform or work in Ventura County theater, submit your bio as well!
Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Conejo Players Theatre through December 14. For dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.