One of the West End’s most in-demand musical directors, Nicholas Skilbeck’s recent work includes Follies and the new show based on the life of the pop icon. He tells Nick Smurthwaite how talking to Tina inspired him
The creative and technical credits for any big musical will have four or five people responsible for delivering the sound and music. They will usually include the musical director, the sound designer, the music supervisor, and the orchestrator. To the layman it appears to be a lot of people doing pretty much the same job.
Except, of course, that it’s not the same job. “We all have our different roles,” says seasoned MD Nicholas Skilbeck, currently fulfilling the role of music supervisor on the newly opened Tina Turner musical at the Aldwych Theatre. “The music department sometimes appears large because it is a form in itself.”
As one of the West End’s most respected and sought-after MDs, with Gypsy , Sister Act , Hairspray , Billy Elliot and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  to his credit, why did Skilbeck take on the role of music supervisor on Tina?
He says: “There were lots of issues to do with arranging the songs so that they fitted the story. It is hard to fulfil that role when you’re bogged down with the mechanics of the show. Of all the shows I’ve done, I felt more involved in the shaping of Tina than any other.”
Because Tina Turner’s concerts were so energetic and unique, Skilbeck’s job was to bring together that epic quality of her live performance with the intimacy of being in a West End theatre as well as delivering a coherent narrative.
“So we had to develop a way of juxtaposing two forms – the concert and the narrative. If it works, you should be able to move seamlessly from the narrative device into the concert format.”
Already a big fan – “she has one of the most extraordinary voices of the 20th century” – Skilbeck was able to ask Turner directly about her singing style and range.
Tina told me she had always felt secure on stage. That helped me find a way to place these epic songs in the context of her story
“She is such an innate musician, she speaks the language of music,” he says. “She was always completely spontaneous, feeling her live shows in the moment, but at the same time fiercely disciplined. She told me she had always felt comfortable, happy and secure on stage. Knowing that helped me find a way to treat these epic songs, and place them in the context of her story.”
Skilbeck continues: “I also asked her about her voice, and she told me she’d always felt as if it had no top and no bottom in terms of her range, which was inspiring for me in terms of how to shape the vocals.”
A fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, Skilbeck was always eclectic when it came to his musical tastes. “I knew from an early age that I preferred music that interacted with other forms. Even as a student at the Royal Academy I never aspired to being a concert pianist or anything like that. I’d be listening to new wave, punk or pop on my Walkman and then playing Debussy and Rachmaninov at college.”
His induction into musical theatre aged nine was the musical Billy in 1974, starring Michael Crawford and based on the Keith Waterhouse novel Billy Liar. “I’ve always loved stories told in music, which is why I don’t recognise any difference between opera and musical theatre. When music is brought in to storytelling it elevates and celebrates it, taking it to another level. In every show I work on I’m trying to capture the sheer visceral power of music that can take your breath away.”
How difficult did he find establishing himself after he left the Royal Academy of Music?
“I was never part of the theatre community,” he says. “My family were nothing to do with the theatre and my training was classical. My first job was writing incidental music for a fringe pantomime at the old Latchmere pub theatre in Battersea, which I loved. I learned how to be ruthless with material, which was an important lesson. As an artist in a collaborative field you must be prepared to kill your babies for the greater good.”
Q&A: Nicholas Skilbeck
What was your first non-theatre job?
I ran a summer play scheme in West Byfleet when I was 16.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Musical director of Piaf at the Oldham Coliseum in 1989.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I can’t really answer that as I feel I’m still learning.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The Beatles, Kate Bush, Jacques Brel, Paul Weller – all risk takers.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be brave and give the best of yourself. It’s the panel’s fault if they let talent out of that room, not yours.
If you hadn’t been a musical director and supervisor, what would you have been?
A politician of some kind.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I try to meditate and warm up before a show, to get myself into the zone.
After a season at the Oldham Coliseum, under director Paul Kerryson, in the late 1980s, working on shows including Piaf and Godspell, Skilbeck stepped away from musical theatre for several years to write and compose, during which time he also developed an interpretative sign language for opera. He also co-wrote the book The Singing and Acting Handbook: Games and Exercises for the Performer.
As a sometime teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, he says he always encourages his students to “get out into the world and do other interesting things. If you’ve worked outside the bubble of showbiz you’ve got something else to bring to the table.”
He returned to London theatre in the late 1990s to work as a music assistant on Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Oliver! followed by Cats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Billy Elliot and Mamma Mia!, although he is at pains to point out that he did not originate the musical direction on any of those shows.
Productions for which he did originate the musical direction include Sister Act, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and Follies. He says: “There was a conceptual element in all of those and they were all either best musical winners or nominees. Dominic Cooke’s Follies was my first Olivier nomination for outstanding achievement in music .”
Last year he made his (self-taught) conducting debut with the Broadway production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “Surprisingly it wasn’t scary, which is maybe how you know you’re meant to be doing something. I’d happily go back to conduct Tina on Broadway if the opportunity arose. I loved my time there with Charlie. They make more musicals in the US, apart from anything else.”
Being in such demand, Skilbeck’s time is at a premium but he longs to do more composition in musical theatre. He’s a keen Francophile, and a musical he co-wrote 20 years ago, Quand La Guerre Sera Finie, finally premiered at the Avignon Festival last summer. It is based in France during the Second World War.
“I want to do more writing and composing but unfortunately I’m always being offered things that are incredibly hard to resist. I’m keenly aware of the fact that working on shows like Follies and Tina, amazing and delightful as they are, prevents me from getting on with the projects of my own that I’d like to develop.”
As an observer of musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, does he feel that we in this country do enough to foster new talent?
“We place a lot of pressure on new musicals and those who create them,” he says. “There is a massive amount of scrutiny, much more so than with a new play. I believe too much scrutiny hinders the development of new musicals. You have to let them breathe. But I’ve never spoken to a single UK producer who doesn’t wish we were putting on new shows, so, yes, I’m sure there is the will to generate more musicals here.”
In recent years he has been too busy to spend a lot of time teaching, but he says he has always tried to get across to his MD students the need to “stand up for music, to strive to be the music expert in the room, and make sure it is an equal partner in the triumvirate of music, dance and drama.”
CV: Nicholas Skilbeck
Born: Gateshead, 1965
Training: Royal Academy of Music
• Hell Bent, Drill Hall and tour (1995)
• Victoria Wood: At It Again, UK tour (2001)
• Mamma Mia!, Prince Edward Theatre (2002)
• Hairspray, Shaftesbury Theatre (2007)
• Oliver!, Drury Lane (2009)
• Sister Act, London Palladium (2009)
• Sweeney Todd, Adelphi (2012)
• Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Palace Theatre (2013)
• Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre (2014)
• Kate Bush: Before the Dawn, Hammersmith Apollo (2014)
• Follies, National Theatre (2017)
• Quand La Guerre Sera Finie, Avignon Festival (2017)
• Tina – the Tina Turner Musical, Aldwych (2018)
Agent: Davina Shah at Macnaughton Lord
Tina – the Tina Turner Musical is playing at the Aldwych Theatre, London , and is currently booking until October