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West End musician Mike Davis: ‘In a theatre pit, virtually every player is a soloist’

Mike Davis at a recording session for the Gypsy cast album

Multi-instrumentalist Mike Davis has played for shows from Follies and Gypsy to Grease and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. He tells David Benedict why he loves the variety and how the highly skilled musicians in the pit need to practise daily to stay at the top of their game

Joining the orchestra at English National Opera last autumn to play lead saxophone in Porgy and Bess for conductor John Wilson was not, on the face of it, an unusual gig for musician Mike Davis. Very few operas require saxophones, so when they’re needed, orchestras draft in specialist players.

What made the job unusual for Davis was his workload. “There were three of us,” he recalls. “And one night we timed it: in a three-and-a-half-hour opera, I think we played for 12 and a half minutes.”

Contrast that with his experience playing for Chichester Festival Theatre’s Gypsy. The production’s new orchestration did away with the strings heard on the 1959 original. Instead, the show went for a big-band sound. “Lots of the string writing was played on the clarinets. There was one number in which I didn’t have a single bar’s rest: my face was hanging off by the end of it.” He sighs, happily, nonetheless. “We could see the actors when they were on the walkway across the orchestra pit. But you could feel Imelda Staunton’s energy all night. It was amazing. And I think across both runs she missed just two shows and that was solely because she was ill. It was such a great show to play.”

‘As a woodwind player, I have between 15 and 20 instruments – that’s thousands of pounds’ worth’

Davis likes being busy, which is lucky since, in order to cut costs, producers tend to hire as few players as possible. That leaves the musicians playing and very rarely sitting reading books: they’re working, and hard. And as one of the West End’s leading woodwind players, Davis is working harder than most.

Take a look at his recent diary. Currently working on Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, he recently finished an eight-week run in Chichester’s This Is My Family. That followed both incarnations of the National Theatre’s Follies with Fun Home at the Young Vic sandwiched in between.

Mike Davis (centre) with the London Symphony Orchestra for Wonderful Town at the Barbican, London

But it’s not just the shows that keep him busy: it’s also his multitasking within them. Describing Davis as a saxophonist is accurate but seriously wide of the mark. For starters, he plays six different types of sax: sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. Then there are the four types of clarinet he plays: standard, E-flat, bass and contra-alto. For Fun Home, he played three of those, but also flute and cor anglais; on Follies, in addition to clarinet and sax he was on flute, alto flute and piccolo.

Not only does that degree of versatility make him highly employable, it reaps financial dividends. The Musicians’ Union/Society of London Theatre West End contract pays a basic minimum of £1,027 for an eight-show week. But each additional instrument played (up to a total of four) adds a further 15% of the fee, bringing the possible total to £1,489.15. By contrast, actors’ West End basic minimum is considerably less: £712.73.

All 18 wind instruments for Wonderful Town played by the five musicians above

On the other hand, unlike actors, pit musicians have no bargaining power and cannot use agents to negotiate fees upwards on the grounds of their worth, experience or pulling power. Indeed, they don’t use agents as actors do: they’re hired via orchestral ‘fixers’ contracted by a show’s producers or production managers. Musicians’ relationships with fixers mirrors that of actors with casting directors.

“The pay reflects the amount of time a musician has trained in order to play the instruments,” Davis argues. “We have to buy and look after all of them. As a woodwind player, I probably have between 15 and 20. That’s thousands of pounds’ worth of instruments.”

His trademark versatility has always been there. Having started on the recorder at about five or six, by the age of eight he was also playing piano. That wasn’t enough. “I wanted to learn the clarinet but my school didn’t have one so they said, ‘Here’s a cello.’ ” After a few years on those he went to a state secondary school in Solihull, where he promptly started on flute and sax. “I was very lucky because the county music service was based at my school, so I could have lessons on them outside of school time and I didn’t have to miss academic lessons.”

The spur to a professional career came a couple of years later when his brother, five years older, was playing for the local amateur dramatic society. “They needed another woodwind player and I said I’d do it, but he said I couldn’t because I couldn’t play all the specific instruments needed. That was a kick to me to prove him wrong.”

‘I like the variety – one day I could be doing Sweeney Todd on flute and piccolo, the next playing Grease on baritone sax’

By the time he went to sixth-form college he had Grade 8 on piano, sax, flute, cello and recorder. After that he went to study at Birmingham Conservatoire as a jazz saxophonist and while there began deputising – ‘depping’ – on touring and regional productions.

“Depping is a great way to fill your diary and pay your bills when you are not contracted to a show. You’re contacted by a player, they offer you dates, then you have to go in and see the show. You sit next to the player you’ll be covering for. You’re sent a copy of the music and the CD and you stay home and learn it until you know you cannot go wrong.”

Crucially, the dep has to learn to play it in exactly the same way as the person they’re covering for. It’s assumed you will be able to go on and play exactly as expected.

“People are paying hundreds of pounds for their tickets. All the people I work with strive to play the best they can. It’s a real skill. Some people don’t like it but I really do. It’s a challenge. I like going into different pits and playing with different people – I like the variety. One day I could be doing Sweeney Todd on flute and piccolo, the next playing Grease on baritone sax. I also think having to be on your best form every time in so many different styles of music is exciting. You’re sitting with legendary players, some of whom have been on the circuit for 20 or 30 years. They still practise at home and it’s just amazing to see.”

Musicians in the pit for Follies at the National Theatre

Players contracted to a show must do 60% of the run. But performances can be taken off for concerts or recording sessions or to see families, hence the need for depping.

“It’s healthy. Your playing stays fresh. Doing eight shows, 52 weeks a year, you might get stale.” Actors, denied the luxury of this arrangement, might not agree. But Davis defends his position, arguing that depping keeps standards high.

He also welcomes the pressure of being one of only a few players in a show’s orchestra pit, as opposed to being in the massed ranks of a symphony orchestra. Although Follies boasted a band of 21, most West End shows manage 14 players at the very most, often far fewer.

“It means pretty much every player is a soloist. On Gypsy, as third clarinet, I had lots of held notes but then I suddenly had the spotlight of a whole Dixieland jazz moment. In a theatre pit, absolutely everyone is important. If you are experienced and good at what you do and the jobs are there, it’s a very good way of making a living as a musician.”

Down the pits – West End musicians

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