It has been a busy year for musical director George Francis, who turns 23 on the first preview of his new show, Liverpool Playhouse’s Miracle on 34th Street. He tells Catherine Jones about earning the company’s respect, being taught the piano by Echo and the Bunnymen keyboardist Jez Wing and why he’s not bothered about hierarchy
Musical director George Francis is capping a busy 12 months with a return to the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse for its Christmas show.
Miracle on 34th Street marks Francis’s fifth collaboration in two years with the Liverpool theatre, and he only turns 23 on the day of the first preview.
“Until now I’ve never felt comfortable telling people my age,” he says, “because I’ve always thought as an MD you have to earn the respect before you divulge that information.”
While he has never experienced any overt ageism, Francis does admit it plays on his mind on the first day of a show. “I think they’re all looking at me thinking: ‘Who’s this Scouse boy teaching us?’ But then I always like to think you prove yourself, and as soon as they know you can do the work no one is actually bothered about age.”
Despite his youth, he’s built up a significant body of work for more than a decade. Early acting ambitions were superseded by music when, reluctant to keep learning piano aged 10, he was won over by a new teacher who arrived at his house and, instead of Chopin, launched into Coldplay.
The teacher was Jez Wing, a member of Echo and the Bunnymen’s touring band, and Francis credits the keyboardist with inspiring him to study music seriously.
Two years later, he was playing piano for classes at Liverpool’s Elliott-Clarke School, then later at Jennifer Ellison’s Fame Academy. In his early teens, Francis also won a place on a CBBC show in which youngsters were challenged to rework a piece of classical music into a pop song. His team’s entry, Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, re-imagined via hip hop, won.
Francis played keyboards at Glastonbury at 16 and then at Christmas the same year was made musical director for the Epstein Theatre’s panto – taking time off from sixth form to carry out the role. He then won a place to study pop piano at the Royal Northern College of Music but realised after a day that what he really wanted was “to go and do work”.
He says: “I had a job offer to work at Rare [Studio] in its early days of being a college. It was also the year the piano bar opened at the Liverpool Empire, so I used to play for ballet classes at LIPA [Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts] in the morning, Rare in the afternoon and then Empire in the evening – every day for a year, which was amazing.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I’ve never had a non-music related job.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Music director for panto at the Epstein Theatre aged 16.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t push too hard but don’t relax too much. Things happen when they are meant to.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
New York. Everything I’ve seen there, the people I’ve met there, everything I’ve experienced there, everything I’ve read about it.
What is your advice for auditions?
Be prepared and as calm as you can be.
If you hadn’t been a musical director, what would you have been?
I’d like to have worked in radio or be a puppeteer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always do full stretch circles with my arms. Sounds daft now.
Francis went on to be musical director on shows at St Helens Theatre Royal, Liverpool’s Royal Court, London’s Union Theatre and at Edinburgh. But it was when he was due to play for LIPA dance students one morning that he was asked to help with auditions for the Everyman rep company’s Fiddler on the Roof.
That audition process led to him being invited to act as musical director on the production, something he says was one of the defining moments in his career so far. “I honestly can’t say enough how grateful I am to Gemma Bodinetz, and everyone at the Everyman, for just going with a young local creative,” he says.
“That’s what gave me the legitimacy to go and work as I have after it. They could have easily just got someone from London who had better credits than me.”
Francis returned for the Rep’s 2018 season, working on Paint Your Wagon and supervising two other productions, and in the past 18 months has also worked on Chester Storyhouse’s The Wizard of Oz, was assistant MD on the Blood Brothers tour, and as musical director for Amélie.
This acceleration in his career trajectory hit home a few months ago when he was in his favourite coffee shop in Liverpool and spotted flyers for no fewer than three productions he was involved in, something he describes as “a lovely little ‘taking stock’ moment”.
One of them was Meredith Willson’s stage musical version of Miracle on 34th Street. And the Liverpool Playhouse Christmas show doesn’t just reunite him with Bodinetz, who directs, but also with Fiddler, Paint Your Wagon and Amélie choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves.
“It feels very safe,” Francis says of the partnership. “We have a good time, we’re all calm, collaborative people, and I enjoyed those two Everyman shows so much – Fiddler is definitely the best thing I’ve ever done. You want to work with people who bring out the best in each other, not just yourself.
“Musicals take every department to come together. If one fails, the show can go down. I don’t want to use specific examples, but I’m sure everybody has been associated with one in some form, either as an audience member or involved in some way. And what we have is just that lucky collaboration; we can pull together and work as one.”
Along with his MD jobs, Francis has also created new orchestrations for the Miracle cast of “nine brilliant voices” – working on the score in between playing piano for Blood Brothers.
After acting as musical supervisor and director on a major new production such as Amélie, it’s perhaps a surprise to learn Francis was content to step back into an assistant role on the tour of the Willy Russell nature-verses-nurture classic.
He smiles: “I’m not going to lie, I love being the MD. But when you do something like The Wizard of Oz, which was two months of stick conducting plus a month of intense rehearsals, and then three months of Amélie rehearsals, I was ready to just sit in the pit. I was ready for that lower-responsibility gig for a while.
“Also, I worked with a very experienced MD [Matt Malone] who has done the show for a long time. Every day I learned something more. That’s the best thing about being an MD – you get to work with other MDs.
“I just think some gigs you’re the assistant, some you’re the supervisor, some you’re the rehearsal pianist. And that’s throughout your whole career.
“I’m not bothered about hierarchy. As long as I’m making music, and with nice people, I’m happy.”
Born: 1996, Liverpool
• Fiddler on the Roof, Liverpool Everyman (2017)
• Liverpool Everyman Rep Season (2018)
• The Wizard of Oz, Storyhouse (2018)
• Amelie, Watermill; UK tour; West End (2019)