For the last six months I have been living a double life. Every Thursday afternoon I have been leaving my house at 3:00pm to make the trek to Berwick Fields Primary School. Whilst everyone around me was stuck in their cars during peak hour, I have been madly listening to the score of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. And occasionally, I have listened to some Richard Wagner, but I will get to that a little later. My story begins with a chance meeting.
He looked tired, almost worn. That is my recollection of meeting Director Matt Hillman for the first time. He was initially a mutual friend of my wife. They had done a show together some years before. Rachael, my wife told me that her friend was looking for a Musical Director (M.D.) for an upcoming production of West Side Story. “I’m not a conductor” I bluntly retorted to her suggestion that I could conduct the show. Having been in my fair share of pits, I had seen what could all too often go wrong; a bar jumped here, ten over there. No thank you I told myself. A few weeks later Rachael told me that AdLib “are still looking for a conductor for West Side Story.” I mulled the idea of whether or not I could actually conduct for some time. “Ok, I’ll do it” I told her.
So here we were, Matt and myself shaking hands and running through the formalities of a first time meeting. We sat down to eat and yada yada yada, the rest is history. Well, there are some other guideposts along the way. We sat down and discussed the idea of West Side Story. AdLib and Hillbilly productions had acquired the rights and were in the process of staging the production. Rehearsals and casting were already finalised. At this stage I wasn’t available immediately. Somehow, I am going to presume a huge leap of faith from Matt Hillman, I was given the job of conducting one of the hardest shows in the repertoire. Being a classically trained orchestral musician, the first thing I did after the meeting was race home and order the full edition score. Some weeks would pass before it would arrive, complete with its own U.S. Postal sack.
Those weeks passed quickly. I found myself unusually nervy about attending the first rehearsal. I had no full score to look at. Matt had informed me that there were a number of discrepancies in the piano conductor’s score. However, I received a phone call from my parent’s. The score had arrived. I made a detour to their house to pick up the full score and make the trek out to Berwick. The first drive was the hardest. I had been starting 5:30am shifts and lacked sleep. Armed with a strong coffee and determination I arrived at the Theatre.
The nerves gripped me as I sat outside waiting for the right moment to walk in. It was “now or never.” Walking through those glass doors for the first time was the most difficult. A sea of friendly, welcoming faces soon changed those thoughts. From the very beginning, the students and staff at AdLib were welcoming. They were accommodating of my little eccentricities. More importantly, they are a family, and I was their newest member. Like every family there were certain figures. Peter and Donna Dowler, founders of AdLib were undoubtedly the parents of the company. Matt Hillman the responsible older brother. Rhiannan Tones (Choreographer) sisterly, and Jake Machin like a brother (actually, exactly like my younger brother Cameron). And then came Tonight…
There are around thirty cast members in front of me. Neither they or myself really knew Tonight very well. The first run was a perfect realm of chaos. We were all learning on the job. The decision was to use a recording to learn the number. At this stage we had no rehearsal pianist to note bash with. I remember leaving the rehearsal feeling the overwhelming burden of responsibility. I made that first trip home feeling that I had intrinsically failed at what I should have been doing: conducting! The next week would be better I told myself. Then came the production camp.
Peter and Donna Dowler are very gracious and giving people. My wife and then two month old daughter came with me to production camp. And with a little convincing also stayed during production camp. I can laugh now when I think back to that weekend. Charlotte had more attention paid to her than I did at that stage. She was the star attraction. And shortly after that weekend became a regular mascot at every rehearsal. Anytime I felt that things were getting on top of me, I could look at her and realise that I could make it through. The highlight of that weekend came on Sunday morning. Everyone involved in the camp were tired. We were worn out. That is when I decided to play the motivational video that gained notoriety amongst the cast and crew. “The first rule is trust yourself”… says Arnold Schwarzenegger. For four minutes silence prevailed. The cast focused on the soothing voice of the Governator. After that? Absolute dedication to running the blocked scenes. Rachael, Charlotte, and I left the rehearsal camp with a restored sense of purpose towards the production. Events traveled along well until school holidays.
Holidays meant my first real block of time that I could devote to crafting my conducting skills. I always aim to learn as much about a work as I can when I am first learning it. The added historical context always adds to a performance. “I can’t believe he is sitting in a rehearsal with a glass of scotch” I said to Rachael one morning. I was referring to Bernstein in the making of West Side Story. He also had a cigar in his hand whilst conducting later in the film. I took some inspiration from what I saw. I turned up to the very next rehearsal with a flask of coffee. This was a once only offer. Conducting and strong percolated coffee don’t mix. The end of a very interesting episode!
Phil Scanlon couldn’t offer me assurances that he could play all the notes. “West Side is a hard show” he told me as we met for the first time. Though he came in quite late in the set piece, Phil in my opinion helped mould the production into a much higher undertaking. We had struggled to fill the rehearsal pianist position. He stepped in at a critical time. I am still grateful to this day of the help he offered. It was no sooner than Phil was onboard that we were into production week. Actually, it was six weeks that he was with us. Every rehearsal helped build the cast’s confidence in what they were doing. Most had never sung in a full-length theatre production before West Side.
Production week is always hard. It’s hard on the production crew, cast, and band. Collectively, we had been at the theatre since 9:00am on a Sunday morning. By the time the Sitz Probe came around at 5:00pm we were exhausted. The musicians were exhausted and were about to sight read the parts. My confidence levels weren’t very high at this stage. To the credit of everyone involved, we got there. Both the cast and musicians did well. Even Charlotte was still smiling by that time of night. The Sitz Probe was just the beginning. Now it was production week.
The first dress rehearsal set up some challenges that I believe helped the production in its success. Every rehearsal until the first dress rehearsal pitted me at the front of the stage. There was no orchestra pit. The plan was to sit me at the back of the stage with the band and set up a monitor. The first rehearsal was upon us and we went through the motions to ensure we had everything setup. “Where’s the video camera?” Matt said aloud. He had worked that day and had forgotten it. From there things only became harder. The challenge of trying to conduct a band and cue cast when they were facing away proved too hard. I walked away ready to resign. Regardless of any technical deficiencies, I had decided that it was completely my fault. A restless night ensued before I decided to text Matt with a solution.
“I’m going to conduct from the front of stage, we’ll rig a reverse camera so that the band can watch me through the monitor.” The solution worked in our favour. The cast picked up. There was a spring in their step and an air of confidence that had lacked during the first dress rehearsal. There were a few communication kinks between the band and myself that I would need to iron out. But overall, we had a show. I went home and printed out signs. I had one for every number of the show. This proved to be both efficient and effective during the run.
Brushing my teeth, I looked into the mirror. I was tired. I was worn. Could I even do this I wondered? I remembered back to the rehearsal camp and the video I had played. Somehow, someway, it settled me. From there I was fortified. The first show went by quickly. The audience were happy, they were rowdy, they wolf-whistled Tony and Maria during the Balcony Scene! We came away feeling exuberant at the results the cast achieved. Cloud nine had a silver lining. The second show had a less secure feeling. After the dance at the gym I felt we had nailed it. Things went wrong after that. The cast and crew went into the interval with an uneasy feeling. Offstage dramas further increased the pressure on everyone. But in the same way that a coach would rally his or her team, we walked along the backstage halls rallying the cast. The second act was settled. And before we knew it, we were two shows down and one to go.
The night of the final show was different. I knew we had it. Even before the first downbeat. A very cocky observation from a Musical Director. We allowed the cast more freedom in their pre-show warmup. This gave them more focus and energy onstage. There were scenes that night that were very realistic including the Rumble. I walked the halls during interval to see wounded cast with icepacks and cold cans of soft drink nursing their wounds. Clearly there was an air of realism that I didn’t expect to see in any production. Before I knew it the show was over.
As I sit here typing my recollections of my first show as Musical Director, two things strike me: One, it’s nearly 3:00am in the morning. Two, West Side Story was over in the blink of an eye. The show is done and dusted. I spent some time looking through and selecting the photographs that I took during the entire rehearsal period and run. The same photographs that accompany this feature. There are a lot of fond memories and moments that I recall. Memories that I will carry for the rest of my life. I can only relive the memories of AdLib’s production of West Side Story through pictures and memories now. The rest is in the past. But in those fleeting moments there’s a place for us. A time and place for us. Hold my hand and we’re half way there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there. Somehow… Someday, Somewhere…
Ad Lib Children's Theatre's production of West Side Story ran from December 12-14, 2013 at the Starlight theatre, Berwick.