The musical director is hired during pre-production by the producer and director, and is responsible only for the vocal and instrumental performance of the cast and accompanying band or orchestra. Few musical directors are as well-known as David Letterman’s longtime collaborator Paul Shaffer, but all are integral to the musical texture of the shows they work on.
On a play or musical revue, the musical director begins work by attending creative meetings with the director and choreographer to develop the overall vision of the show and determine the mood and theme to be portrayed. This person studies the script and music, then participates in auditions to evaluate the vocal abilities of each potential cast member and offer suggestions on which individuals might be best suited for a particular role, based on the vocal performance required. He or she will also audition and hire musicians with the approval of the director and producer.
After the production is cast, the musical director is tasked with teaching the music to the cast and musicians, then rehearsing their performance. These sessions will take place separately in the initial stages of rehearsal, and then the cast and band or orchestra will be combined to fully develop the sound. The musical director will lead regular warm-ups with the cast and musicians before each show, and will hold continuity rehearsals on a regular basis to maintain consistency and work on performance notes from the stage manager. This person usually serves as the conductor during live performances, directing the orchestra and cueing the cast’s intro to a number. On a smaller show, he or she might also perform as a musician during the show, playing the piano or keyboard.
On variety or comedy sketch shows, like the nightly Second City stage shows, many times it’s just the musical director and a keyboard. Duties are similar to those on a stage musical, but it can be grueling to keep up with unpredictable action on stage. It is a superb training ground, however, and many successful composers and musical directors start in this kind of small show and work up to full-band situations like late-night TV or televised awards shows.
Skills & Education
A college degree in music or musical theater is highly recommended as preparation for this career, and an MFA degree is preferred. Courses in composition, orchestration, and conducting will impart required skills, as will training in musicianship, voice, and acting. The musical director must be proficient at sight-reading music, should be able to write at least simple tunes or cues, and is generally expected to be able to play the piano—ability to play additional instruments is a bonus.
What to Expect
Both permanent and freelance positions are available for musical directors, who can choose to pursue a career in traditional musical theater, with recording artists on touring concerts, or with an opera or orchestra company. This is a senior-level management role that requires several years of experience in performance and musicianship and a strong résumé of credits. An apprenticeship under a veteran musical director is a great way to develop your craft and propel your career forward. Many begin to build skills in local community theater before moving on to college orchestra or musical theater programs, and eventually regional theater and professional gigs. Networking and cultivating professional industry contacts is your most helpful tool is establishing a career in the entertainment industry as a musical director.
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