Q&A@22 #2 – Music Directing with Rory Chalcraft

Q&A@22 is an insider’s view of the work and the magic it takes to produce theater.  Each show we will ask a member of the cast or crew questions about their approach to their particular theatrical craft.

Our second Q&A@22 is with Rory Chalcraft, Music Director of our upcoming production of Brigadoon.   Past credits include music director for local productions of Seussical (Main Street Theatre and YADG), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Main Street Theatre) and as music director and assistant conductor for numerous productions at Wolftrap Filene Center, Source Theatre and Arena Stage in Washington DC with such talent as Bernadette Peters, Patti Labelle, Judy Collins, Tony Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch, Sammy Cahn and Henry Mancini. He is also a Helen Hayes Award nominee, for his compositions at the Source Theater Company; and was the resident music director for Arena Stage’s Living Stage Theatre Company.  PH22 audiences might remember him as the Narrator in last year’s production of A Christmas Carol. Other acting credits include The Music Man (Olin Britt) and Catch Me If You Can (Daniel Corban).

Q&A@22:  What does a music director do?

Rory Chalcraft: From my perspective, a music director is responsible for making sure all of the music – the songs, the underscoring (music played during a scene), music for dances and scene-change music (transitioning from one scene to the next) – all work together to achieve the director’s vision for the show.

This involves quite a few “tactical” … nitty-gritty … details such as teaching the songs to the actors, working with the orchestra to get them up to speed, working with the choreographer in terms of the style of the dance music and so on. But the key is to always make sure that all the music helps to create the experience we want the audience to have when they come to see the show.

Q&A@22:  When do you get involved in the play selection process? Do you let the theater or directors know you’re available or do people seek you out?

RC:  This is ‘both – and’ for me. I won’t go to a theater company and say, “Here’s a show I’d like to music direct; please find a director.” It’s more about personal connections for me. There are directors that I know and want to work with, so I’ll reach out to them to work on some project with them. Sometimes I’ll learn that someone is considering doing a show that I’d love to work on, and I’ll contact that director asking to be considered. If there’s a theater that I’d like to work with, and I’ve not worked with them before, I’ll try to find someone to provide an introduction for me.

Other times a director will find me and ask to join the team. That’s how, in fact, I joined the production of Brigadoon here … the director had seen a show I music directed at another theater; and he asked me to join him.

The world of music is a bit smaller, I think, than that of actors where the saying, “It’s not so much what you know but who you know” is very true.

Q&A@22:  How much input do you have on the acting aspects of the show? Do you give performance direction to the actors or teach them how to sing the songs?

RC:  Music directing isn’t just about teaching the songs – although that’s a large part of my work in a show. I will work with the actors in terms of performance direction, but in very limited and defined parameters.

What I will not do is coach actors on staging, characterization, motivation and the like – that’s the director’s area of expertise and responsibility. What I do is work with the actors within the context of the music itself … making sure that the character of the song is aligned to the character of the scene. Through conversations with the director and by my watching all the rehearsals, I’ll learn what the director intends for each character and each scene throughout the show and then use that to coach the actors in the music. For example, if a character is nervous or upset during a scene then the song needs to reflect that. And I’ll work with the actor – providing the vocal and musical coaching – to achieve that quality in their singing. The focus is on how each song’s phrase helps to move the character and scene forward, or perhaps on understanding the particular style of the music and how that helps communicate the story or to create the atmosphere in the scene. So, it’s essentially about how to take those notes on a page and turn them into music that helps the actor achieve what he/she needs, based on the director’s vision for each moment in the show.

Q&A@22:  Do you go over the score a lot before meeting with the actors or do you sight-read/do it on the fly?

RC:  There’s no such thing as “doing it on the fly!” I need to know the score – inside and out – before we even audition the show.

There will be a few pre-production meetings with me, the director and choreographer before auditions. This is where the director can share his vision of the show. And I will have to speak about the music clearly and specifically during those meetings – and even play some of the music as well. Additionally, in order to cast the show I will have to know the vocal ranges and nature of each song (the styles used in the music). All of this means that I need to know the score pretty darned well.

Q&A@22:  How much time does it take you to learn the score?

RC:  In terms of the amount of time needed to learn the score, it depends on its complexity (and whether I’m already familiar with the music). Generally speaking I’d prefer to have at least 5 or 6 weeks before auditions to get the score and to work on it.

Q&A@22:  How much rehearsal time do you like to have from auditions to opening?

RC:  Most of the time, in my experience so far, the rehearsal calendar is set ahead of time by the theater company. The amount of rehearsal time is often based on the size and complexity of the show. Some larger shows can take up to eight weeks of rehearsals; other shows may have only five weeks of rehearsal.

I’m fine with both of these scenarios. Many times I’ll work with both the director and choreographer to “carve out” time here and there during rehearsals to work on songs.

Q&A@22:  How do you deal with singers with different levels of experience? How do you get them to gel?

Great question! Of course I expect to get a variety of skill and experience among cast members. Musical theater is not like American Idol or some concert … one doesn’t need to have the most polished or trained voice. In fact, sometimes you’ll want a young, fresh sounding voice because that’s what the part calls for. The key is that an actor be able to tell the story of the song – that’s most important.

Of course, one needs to carry a tune – AND be able to communicate through song. I think that that’s why some well-known pop singers who’ve tried their hand at musical theater don’t do well at all. They’re so preoccupied with how they sound vocally that they completely miss the point of musical theater – to reveal their character and tell the story of the show. I’ve seen this happen time and time again; and they often fail miserably.

For an ensemble in a show there are ways to help individuals – whether it is pairing people up so they can help each other or even simplifying some harmonies if necessary. But even with an ensemble the important aspect is always to understand WHAT is sung and then communicating that to the audience. So, through rehearsals I can get the actors to “gel” because we all come to a common understanding of what is communicated through the music.


Q&A@22:  Do you get to choose the orchestra?

RC:  Sometimes I do get to choose; other times I don’t … and either is fine with me.

There are some theaters that have a group of regular musicians they’d like to use. So, especially when I’m working with a company for the first time, I make a point of asking the producer if there are any regular musicians I’ll need to use. At the very least, those musicians will be given ‘right of first refusal.’

Other times I can choose musicians for the orchestra.

Each time I work with musicians, I make sure to get their contact information so I can call upon them in the future.

Q&A@22:  What’s your favorite part of music directing a show?

RC:  I think that of all the theater arts, music theater is the most exciting in and of itself. As an audience member there’s something magical the moment the first notes are played or sung … I know that when I hear the first song of any show (as an audience member) I sit up straighter in my seat, my eyes widen and I’m excited to experience the show. And being able to work together with a cast to create that magic for audiences is a wonderful opportunity when working as a music director.


Q&A@22 #1 – Directing with Robert Gargiullo

Q&A@22 #2 – Music Directing with Rory Chalcraft

Q&A@22 #3 – Choreography with Holly Jahn

Q&A@22 #4 – Acting with Emily Gordanier

Q&A@22 #5 – Stage Managing with Kate Matseur

Q&A@22 – Main