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Down the pits – West End musicians

Image: Adam McCulloch
by -

Stage performers’ talents are matched by those of the unseen musicians providing show soundtracks, many of whom are stars in their own right. Some of the UK’s top instrumentalists tell Adam McCulloch of the unique challenges and rewards that working in the increasingly competitive West End environment presents

“When I was approached about playing in the pit band for Les Miserables, someone told me: ‘Don’t worry about being stuck there – doubt it’ll take off, it’s just some little thing moving over from the Barbican. And the critics have slagged it off.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, it’s decent money, and after a couple of months I’ll be back doing ‘serious’ gigs again’. I was 23 when I started on Les Mis. I was 42 when I finished.”

David Laurence is a french horn player, who now divides his time professionally between teaching music and playing for orchestras and jazz groups. In the early 1980s, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and began to gain recognition after winning a prestigious french-horn prize.

After graduating, Laurence wasn’t keen on the idea of playing in a West End show. The same music night after night, and a lack of opportunity for individual expression, means working on a theatrical production isn’t always obviously attractive to professional musicians, particularly one who wants to play ‘serious’ music.

“I was into jazz and high-level classical stuff,” says Laurence. “I had been playing with Johnny Dankworth and the guys from the Loose Tubes big band. But, looking back, the West End was perfect – half-way between jazz and classical.”

He took the Les Mis gig and loved it: “I found myself in a world full of top session players all of a sudden.” Following the Musicians’ Union strike in 1986, West End producers increased their rates, and suddenly the pits were filling with men and women more used to the inside of recording studios.

But doing a show is no easy gig for musicians. “[Les Miserables’ composer Claude-Michel] Schonberg’s music, arranged by John Cameron, is tough,” says Laurence. “I had the instrument on my face for three hours straight every night. Suddenly, doing a Mozart gig felt like light relief.”

The repetition could also seem gruelling. “It was six nights a week and two matinees,” he says. “You just had to focus because the music was so tough. But, yes – and this might seem strange to Les Mis fans – there were times when you’d be bored. People who weren’t playing used to sit there and read Private Eye or Viz or something during their bars’ rest.”

There is a danger of losing touch with reality when in the bubble created by a long-running West End show, says Laurence: “You find yourself getting tetchy about silly things – if someone had moved your chair a bit, for example.”

For musicians on shows, the fear of losing one’s edge is ever-present. For this reason, it’s important for players to ‘dep out’ on certain nights to allow for relaxation or the possibility of doing other engagements, even short tours. Laurence’s mammoth stint on Les Mis was made easier by the band leader’s relaxed attitude towards the use of deputising players.

The calibre of dep musicians used in top West End shows means they don’t need to rehearse the music beforehand, unless the musical director insists on it. Instead, the dep comes in to the previous night’s performance and sits next to the musician in question, listening and observing.

Many deps are star performers with other orchestras or ensembles. The rest of the band listens intently to see how they will manage some of the more difficult passages in the music, Laurence explains.

“The trumpet solo in the battle scene is very difficult, with some really high notes,” he says. “Sometimes the deps found that tough – also the long oboe solo after the battle is a big ask. But it was amazing. One night you’d be sitting next to a star player from the London Symphony Orchestra, the next the principal oboist from the Berlin Philharmonic would be there. They all wanted to do Les Mis. When you came back though, everyone would wind you up by telling you how great your dep was.”

Do pit musicians mix well with the acting fraternity? Laurence recalls both cordial and frosty relations. “A lot of the time the two just don’t mix,” he says. “There can be some resentment if, for example, ensemble actors are having to turn up for day rehearsals and sound checks while the band members just slip into pit the moment the conductor raises the baton – especially if the musicians are on more money. But other times we’d mix really well. Michael Ball, Alun Armstrong and Caroline Quentin were friends to all the musos, and we used to write songs with Dave Willetts up in the dressing room.”

For trumpeter Andrew Crowley, who played in the band for Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Adelphi, London, the lack of contact with the cast was a “bit of a shame”. He says: “Opening and closing nights were the only times the musicians and cast really got to mix. Sometimes, though, during the show, one or two actors would catch your eye, smile or wink, which was fun.”

Crowley has been a session trumpet player for more than 20 years. Like Laurence, he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in the early 1980s, having already excelled in youth orchestras. He has played with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Quincy Jones, most of the major orchestras in the UK and Europe, and performs with his own classical brass group, London Brass, all over the world. Crowley is also ubiquitous in film music recording, having played on the soundtracks to Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Skyfall, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Hobbit.

[pullquote]There can be some resentment if, for example, ensemble actors are having to turn up for day rehearsals and sound checks while the band members just slip into pit the moment the conductor raises the baton – especially if the musicians are on more money[/pullquote]

In 2007, he felt the time was right to ply his trade in the West End on a more regular basis, having played in the band for Michael Grandage’s production of Evita. So, when that show closed at the Adelphi, he was already on-board for Joseph, the next production at the venue. “I knew the contractor and was also recommended by other musicians,” he says.

Unlike the french horn part in Les Mis, the trumpet score for Joseph is, he says, refreshingly straight-forward – important for trumpet players because keeping the ‘chops’ in good condition is as crucial to top session players as maintaining supreme levels of fitness is for an athlete. Crowley says: “It was not that challenging, which is good because you don’t want to be stretching yourself to the limit eight times a week.”

Like Laurence, finding top players willing to tackle Joseph on a dep basis was not difficult. “I got [legendary principal trumpeter] Maurice Murphy, who had just left the LSO, as my first dep. He loved it. In the end, I only did about half the nights.”

Sid Gauld, another trumpet player, was a regular dep on Privates on Parade, which recently finished its run at London’s Noel Coward Theatre. He has also been a regular on Miss Saigon, Hello, Dolly!, Kiss Me Kate, Wicked and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and has seen a lot of change in the West End pit scene.

“It’s now famous session guys – the standard has gone up and up,” says Gauld. “The producers want the shows to sound like recordings to the audience. You don’t get asked back if you miss a few notes here and there anymore.” Privates on Parade involves playing the Last Post solo at the end of the show – something to induce a few nerves in even the most experienced player. Gauld says: “You do get the horrors a bit.”

Like many pit-band instrument-alists, Crowley, Gauld and Laurence followed a well-trodden path to becoming professional musicians. But keyboard player and arranger Andrew Corcoran, who earlier this year finished a stint on Aladdin –   A Wish Come True at London’s O2, has more of a theatrical background. He performed with amdram groups in Manchester, and completed a music with theatre studies degree course at Huddersfield University.

Tom Carradine
Tom Carradine

But, as with acting, talent does not always take a logical path, and can delightfully surface without years of formal training. Corcoran’s assistant MD and keyboard player on Aladdin, Tom Carradine, for example, graduated from Imperial College London with a degree in biochemistry and management.

Incredible advances in recording, sampling and computing technology – plus, perhaps, the need to reduce costs – might lead producers and musical directors to use more backing tracks and cut down on the number of live musicians. When Les Mis transferred to the Queen’s Theatre, the orchestra was much reduced from the original 22-piece combo. But Corcoran says he has not seen evidence of pressure to reduce the live element in musical theatre.

[pullquote]The standard has gone up and up – producers want the shows to sound like recordings to the audience. You don’t get asked back if you miss a few notes here and there anymore[/pullquote]

“In a weird way there’s more of a push back to bigger bands and live sounds at the moment,” he says. “Keyboard samples are largely used these days to augment the live instruments, without particularly being heard themselves, so two live violins plus keyboard violins sound like a full string section, the live players delivering the required phrasing and nuance that the keyboard can’t quite achieve.”

He says the quality of any backing tracks used is crucial: “The Phantom of the Opera number itself is a famous example of where half of what you’re hearing – drum kit, guitars, synth effects – is on a backing track with the pit orchestra chugging along underneath. And that show doesn’t seem to have done too badly, does it?”

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