After starting out as a boy soprano singing at eisteddfods in north Wales, Gareth Valentine went on to become a top musical director. He tells Nick Smurthwaite why demanding the best from musicians is the key to success
One of the West End’s most sought-after musical directors is pondering the question of awards. Why is there no designated category for best musical director at the Olivier Awards, given the importance of that role to a musical’s success? The only possible answer, concludes Gareth Valentine, is that he and his fellow MDs are not perceived as ‘creatives’.
“The role of musical director is seen as interpretive, not creative, and therefore not worthy of its own award,” says Valentine, who trained as a classical musician at the Royal College of Music, studying piano and singing. “However, I do believe arranging is a creative process.”
Valentine has arranged innumerable scores over his 30-year career in musical theatre, the latest being Me and My Girl, directed by Daniel Evans , which opens tonight (July 9) at Chichester Festival Theatre .
Originally produced in 1937, Me and My Girl was successfully revived in the 1980s, with a new book by Stephen Fry and a cast led by Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson. Mike Ockrent’s feel-good production ran in the West End for eight years – and three years on Broadway – winning an Olivier for best musical and three Tony awards.
Isn’t rearranging the score for Me and My Girl a bit like stone-cladding Hampton Court Palace? “Daniel [Evans] wanted to give it a fresh lick of paint,” explains Valentine. “We wanted to push the boat out and do something different from Mike Ockrent’s production. We’ve stretched the borders a bit, with a crazy palette of musical styles. There are elements of swing, Latin American and opera in the mix. Anyone who saw it in the 1980s is in for a surprise.”
Valentine cites his acclaimed musical reinvention of Porgy and Bess at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2014 as a precedent. “You’re basically taking established music and replicating it in a different way. It is a very tight collaboration between the director, the choreographer and myself.”
Evans is an old friend and colleague of Valentine’s – they first worked together in 2000 for the UK premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse.
Evans says: “As an actor, I adored working with Gareth. He instils confidence while demanding the best. His naughty sense of humour is a great leveller and a balance to his passionate intensity about what he does. His knowledge spans opera, orchestral, sacred music, jazz and swing – it pours effortlessly out of him.”
Valentine grew up in Llangollen, north Wales, home of the International Music Eisteddfod. In 1975, he competed in the under-16s vocal solo event as a boy soprano and came second. Third place went to another boy soprano named Bryn Terfel.
“We were a working-class family of bricklayers and labourers but I remember, from an early age, feeling a tingle of excitement on hearing my primary school teacher play some classical piece on the piano. I wanted to play like him.”
Q&A: Gareth Valentine
What was your first non-theatre job?
Assistant at Moss Bros. I measured John Le Mesurier for a dress suit for Ascot.
What was your first professional theatre job?
That’s Eight at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To listen more to my inner voice.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The musical director Anthony Bowles, who did all the big Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. He really pushed me.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Three words: prepare, prepare, prepare.
If you hadn’t been a musical director, what would you have been?
An academic of some kind.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No – that’s for people who are afraid of the dark.
One of Valentine’s fondest childhood memories is the Cefn Mawr Operatic and Dramatic Society’s productions of Gilbert and Sullivan , which gave him a lifelong affection for the Savoy operas. “The funny thing is, a lot of the American talents I’ve worked with, notably Cy Coleman and Stephen Schwartz , have also been G&S fans. In Me and My Girl, I’ve introduced some little references to them here and there for aficionados.”
With an honours degree from the Royal College of Music, Valentine went on to study operatic singing with the tenor Peter Pears for a year at the Aldeburgh Summer School. He recalls: “I think I knew quite early on that my calling was always going to be music and greasepaint. I started playing piano at Heaven, the gay nightclub in Charing Cross, in the mid-1980s. There used to be an ‘Equity Night’ when cast members from the West End musicals would come in and sing.
“One of the barmen, an original cast member of Jesus Christ Superstar, introduced me to Anthony Bowles, who was Andrew Lloyd Webber ’s then musical director. He got me a job at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester , as an assistant MD on a musical called That’s Eight – a real turkey.”
It may have been a stinker, but That’s Eight launched Valentine on his career path. He quickly realised he had exactly the right skills: improvisation, personality, sight-reading, versatility, transposition and, as he puts it, “the ability to sing things to the actors the way I wanted them to be sung”.
Before Windy City I’d never stood in front of an orchestra or had a single conducting lesson – I learnt by being thrown in the deep end
His breakthrough show was the 1982 musical Windy City during the run of which he made his conducting debut at the age of 26, despite only being third in line in the MD pecking order. “I’d never before stood in front of an orchestra or had a single conducting lesson. I just copied what I’d seen Anthony [Bowles] do. I learnt by being thrown in the deep end.”
Shortly afterwards, still in his 20s, he was conducting a full orchestra for 42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1992 was the start of Valentine’s collaboration with Kander and Ebb. He went on to do West End revivals of Cabaret and, most notably, Chicago. “The big difference with Chicago is that the band was on stage throughout, so the MD and the musicians become very much a part of the show. I threw myself around a lot and the audience loved it.”
Valentine was with the West End production for three years and then acted as musical supervisor for numerous overseas productions for the next 10 years.
How does he maintain the kind of energy level you need to be a full-on MD for that length of time? “I’ve always been naturally energetic,” he says.
“The more energy you give out, the more you’ll get back. I did five shows a week on Chicago. I wanted to leave at the end of the first year, so the producers offered me more money and fewer shows. They kept making me offers I couldn’t refuse. You have to demand a lot from your musicians and try to vary the show from night to night. Theatre is a living thing, it’s not set in stone.”
Valentine says it took him a long time to understand the needs of musicians. “They are a different demographic, they’re earthy, they call a spade a spade and you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. I try to make it fun, to be anecdotal and entertaining and to keep them interested.”
Does he feel there are enough good young musicians coming into the business? “Yes, I see young people coming up. There are MD courses now in theatre schools. What worries me about the young people coming through is that they only appear to know about musical theatre. Their knowledge of other forms of music is extremely limited. I’m stunned by their lack of curiosity. My advice to them would be to listen to all kinds of music, broaden your terms of reference because you’re going to need that in order to get on.”
Does he ever regret not following a more classical path? “I do sometimes wonder how I would have fared as an opera singer, but life took me in another direction. The living has been easy for me – it’s the people you work with who sometimes make it difficult. When I started out, I was told by a veteran musical director that being an MD was 90% politics, 10% baton technique.”
CV: Gareth Valentine
Born: 1956, Trevalyn
Training: Royal College of Music (1975-79); RCM Opera School (1979-80); Aldeburgh Summer School (1979)
• Windy City, Victoria Palace Theatre (1982)
• 42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane (1984)
• Company, Donmar Warehouse (1996)
• Chicago, Adelphi Theatre (1997)
• Kiss Me Kate, Victoria Palace Theatre (2001)
• Anything Goes, National Theatre and Theatre Royal Drury Lane (2003)
• Porgy and Bess, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (2014)
• Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre (2014)
• Strictly Gershwin, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane (2016)
• Singin’ in the Rain, Theatre du Chatelet, Paris (2017)
Agent: Clare Vidal Hall
Me and My Girl runs at Chichester Festival Theatre  until August 25