The composer and musical director has a long list of acclaimed credits to his name, including his work on Mame and The Color Purple. He talks to Anthony Walker-Cook about being inspired by Stephen Sondheim, his creative endeavours during lockdown, and what new work and the West End might look like post Covid-19
As theatres remain shut during the pandemic, many creatives have sought alternative work in key jobs, from supporting the NHS to working in supermarkets. Composer and musical director Alex Parker took a job in a supermarket in March, but even working in Sainsbury’s he didn’t quite leave the theatre behind. “One of the first shows I remember seeing in the West End was Chicago with Rebecca Thornhill starring as Roxie Hart, and last week I was sat working the checkouts with her. Who would’ve thought we’d be in this situation?”
He signed up, he said, because it made “total sense to put myself forward to work there in an essential sector of society”. He has packed online shops, overseen self-service and main checkouts, and given the occasional Tannoy announcement.
‘I am hugely inspired by the different sound worlds Sondheim makes for each of his shows’
Parker has posted some light-hearted videos of moments in the supermarket, though it did lead to some pushback on social media. “A few people have suggested it is mocking the job, but the people who do that totally miss the point. They watch a 10-second clip of a light moment, but we’re all working incredibly hard for hours.”
Parker has also been working on his creative endeavours during the lockdown and has been hailed for the musical theatre numbers, alongside an extraordinary line-up of musicians and singers, he has been recording and posting online.
These include classics such as Over the Rainbow and Tonight alongside more modern pieces including Astonishing from Little Women and Journey to the Past from Anastasia.
Using an app, each musician layers their individual performance on to the others: Parker begins with the piano and then sends it on to each player, often with the singer adding their part last.
“I hope that the charm of these is that it’s a little cottage industry, with us performing in our bedrooms. It makes it seem a bit more real that way. The voices we’ve had performing [including Liz Callaway, Rob Houchen and Fra Fee] are in my opinion the voices of the business.”
Parker also organised Kings of Broadway, an online concert celebrating the works of Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne and Jerry Herman, with 28 leading West End performers appearing. The show was streamed on YouTube on May 31, with donations going to Acting for Others and NHS Charities Together.
Sondheim is one of Parker’s biggest heroes, and he treasures a memory of once spending an afternoon with the composer after being introduced by writing partner Katie Lam, who was then head of the student union at the University of Cambridge.
The pair walked around the city and what sticks in Parker’s mind is “how interested in the surroundings and the scenery and buildings in Cambridge he was. The most wonderful thing about that moment was how perfectly ordinary it was, yet I was in the presence of someone who has influenced and changed so many people’s lives and art – mine included.”
Parker continues: “He writes about all of us – his work is about people, and therefore it makes it incredibly relatable and thus inspiring. I am also hugely inspired by the different sound worlds he makes for each of his shows.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in River Island for three months when I was 16.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Landor Theatre (2010).
What is your next job?
I had a few shows: I was meant to do Piaf in Nottingham with Jenna Russell, then Roman Holiday in Leicester, and I’m meant to be going to Russia to supervise a production of Chess. The first two have been postponed, but Chess is still planned to happen. After lockdown, I’ll be keen to go somewhere else.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I still try to do a lot of amateur theatre, because I learnt so much there. There is a lot that can be learnt on the job – you are going to learn the most, I think, just doing shows and being in the room. The other thing about learning scores is that, if you do an amdram production of My Fair Lady and then a professional one, it’s still the same score.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
I have four: Stephen Sondheim; the head of music at my senior school, Caroline Gale; musical director genius Gareth Valentine; and my grandfather.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself – we want to see you and get to know you, not a caricature or a modified version of yourself. Make sure you prepare, don’t try to follow ‘rules’, and don’t apologise. Hearing ‘sorry’ the whole time is boring, because quite often you have nothing to be sorry about.
If you hadn’t been an MD, what would you have been?
A music teacher at a secondary school, or a wiggie.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Before a big concert, I go for a walk almost immediately before the show, for about half an hour, to clear my head instead of pondering and spending time getting ready. It really helps and calms me. Before a show, I do a similar thing, but just for less time. But a walk is really good before a performance instead of getting yourself all worked up backstage for too long.
Parker, who turns 30 next year, has a string of acclaimed credits under his belt, including being musical director on Mame at the Hope Mill Theatre, starring Tracie Bennett, and on The Color Purple, which started at Leicester’s Curve.
He was musical director and supervisor on Barnum and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, both at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, and was assistant director on Les Misérables in Dubai and in the West End from 2015 to 2016.
His first job was not so successful. Working as music director on Smokey Joe’s Cafe at the Landor Theatre, he was fired after the second preview. Looking back, he doesn’t consider this a bad thing. “It highlighted how much I didn’t know and therefore how much I needed to know and learn. It took that knock for me to learn how serious you have to be to stand a chance at doing well. Don’t run before you can walk, basically.”
Parker’s love of musical theatre started with family trips to the theatre, often a Christmas treat, during the early 2000s. He points to Anything Goes with Sally Ann Triplett in 2002 as his “musical theatre birth”, while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the original cast of Honk! also stand out as formative experiences.
He remembers his parents talking of favourite shows including Carousel, the 1992 production at the National Theatre directed by Nicholas Hytner. Parker would go on to work, and become close friends, with two of the cast members of the show: Janie Dee and Joanna Riding.
He worked with Riding as assistant musical director on The Pajama Game in 2013 and then Dee the same year in a concert production of A Little Night Music at Guildford. Last year, he produced a concert production of Carousel with both actors. For his family, who reminisced about the original production, the concert “brought back a lot of happy memories”.
Before Covid-19 struck, Parker’s next jobs had included Piaf at the Nottingham Playhouse, Roman Holiday at Leicester Curve, and a production of Chess in Russia. “I was about to work with Adam Penford and then Nikolai Foster,” he says with regret in his voice. “For me, I want to keep working with brilliant creative teams. I’ve been very lucky so far to work with some wonderful and inspiring people.”
Parker had announced he is to work with his writing partner Lam – they met in primary school – on a musical theatre adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl, which was adapted into a film in 2016 starring Eddie Redmayne. He is clear they are adapting the book, not the film: “A lot of the storytelling is internal and music provides a perfect platform for this.”
With the announcement of The Danish Girl came an open call encouraging trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming performers to get in touch with Parker and his creative team. “It’s important that, if we want to present this production, we are collaborating and developing this show with the very people whose story this is from the beginning,” he says.
“We’ve also had so many people messaging us who we would otherwise have never reached. If we had to cast a production for tomorrow, with talent, we could.”
‘Although this is hard, it could be a chance to figure out what people will want to see on stage’
The show will be workshopped later this year, with a production to follow hopefully in late 2021/22.
Turning back to the present, I ask his thoughts on the impact of Covid-19 on new work. “I think the industry was getting to a point where it didn’t know what it wanted to look like,” Parker says. “Although this is hard, it could be an opportunity to look at the landscape and understand what new work looks like post-Covid, figure out what people will want to see on stage and certainly, as writers, make us question ourselves about why we are putting on certain shows in a post-2020 world.”
And as for the West End post-lockdown, Parker says: “I think to begin with, we’ll see more of what Sonia Friedman has done in bringing back Jerusalem – that is, recognising that something needs to be pulled together relatively quickly, is a sure hit, and people will want to see it. That formula works, and we may well see encore runs of shows just to repopulate the West End. Otherwise there is a world where the West End will open with half of its theatres dark, which would be a disaster.”
Born: 1991, London
Training: University of Birmingham
• Mame, Hope Mill Theatre (2019)
• Les Misérables (2015-16)
• Soho Cinders, Charing Cross Theatre (2012)
Agent: Adam Makell at Curtis Brown
Kings of Broadway was on YouTube on May 31, with donations to Acting for Others and NHS Charities Together