The name of the game

The orchestra is tuned and in place, the house announcement goes live, Stage Manager (SM) gives the thumbs up, and now it’s over to me. Communication is everything in theatre and from where I’m standing, it’s a huge responsibility. ‘Chookas and see you on the other side’, says Harold, our trusty SM, who has done a great job driving the show from backstage. Here is where an MD’s work begins.

Corinne’s (percussionist) station | photo by Jennifer Trijo

Providing musical direction for a show is a challenging gig. I’m quite comfortable conducting a musical with a baton from a podium but the orchestration for Mamma Mia! came with a Keyboard 1 / Conductor Score, and when I was offered the gig last year, I thought to myself ‘challenge accepted, let’s do something terrifying again’. I’ve performed my first week of shows as a keyboard / conductor and I’m still standing.

My MD / Keyboard 1 station | photo by Jennifer Trijo

One has to know every nuance of the show and hang on every beat, both musically and dramatically, to ensure that the pace and the dynamics are consistent for every show. There is a lot to coordinate: tempos, keyboard patch changes, balance, complementing the script and the flow of scene changes with the necessary amount of music, dealing with the unexpected, and, on top of that, playing my keyboard book to the best of my ability.

The music of ABBA is laden with complex textures and grooves that are easy to dismiss when one thinks of pop music. The cast and orchestra have worked hard to honour the score and it’s heartwarming to hear the intricacies of their work from where I stand in the pit.

Keyboardists Mark Stefanoff and Sarah Jane Whiteley | photo by Jennifer Trijo

Luckily for me there is a fantastic group of people to work with and plenty of laughs every show. I want to take a moment to acknowledge my musicians: Gregg Eustice (Keyboard 2), Loretta Bowshall (Keyboard 3), Sarah Jane Whiteley (Keyboard 4), Patrick Maher (Guitar), Joe Mueller (Bass Guitar), Corey McNulty (Drums), Corinne Eustice (Percussion), Paul Sinkinson (Deputy Keyboards), Mark Stefanoff (Deputy Keyboards), and Thomas Byrne (Deputy Bass Guitar) for working on this show.

Playing for a musical is a different challenge to playing in a classical orchestra or rock band because of the context of the play happening on stage. These musicians are doing a fine job of complementing the drama and I’m grateful to be sharing a pit with them every night.

Inside the orchestra pit (L to R: Gregg Eustice, Sarah Jane Whiteley, Joe Mueller, and Loretta Bowshall) | photo by Jennifer Trijo

One of my deputy keyboardists, Paul Sinkinson, is a talented musical director in his own right and he played for the recent Mamma Mia! Australian tour while it was in Adelaide. I’m thankful to all of my deputies for stepping in and supporting us this season.

“The music of Mamma Mia! is what draws the crowds and Musical Director Jennifer Trijo has successfully coached the cast in their harmonies and in creating the overall ABBA sound. The band are slick, never drowning out the vocals so the audience can enjoy every nostalgic moment.”

– Trish Francis, The Theatre Association of South Australia

For more insight into the life of a musical director, you can read my interview with Paul in Issue 4 of The Serenade Files magazine which will be out later this month. He is preparing to musically-direct the Elder Conservatorium of Music’s first musical, Spring Awakening. Chookas Paul!

photo by @paul.sinkinson

In closing, I want to acknowledge our Harry Bright, played by Brad Martin. His dedication to his role was such that in a couple of months he learned to play the guitar, with the help of Lance Jones who plays Bill Austin. This is no easy feat and takes courage every night.

Brad Martin as Harry Bright | photo by Jennifer Trijo

I love working with people who throw themselves out of their comfort zones to better their craft. This show has no shortage of them and it’s what the audience and critics don’t see that make the theatre such a magical place to work.

The theatre is a challenging environment but it’s a wonderful place to call my office. As a freelance creative, I have the privilege of working for many different clients and I often find myself in the theatre for work. I take in my surroundings and I don’t regret the decisions in my life which led me here to this place with these lovely souls.

You can choose how you work and where you work. The work of a musician is not for everybody, there are long and hard days but the rewards are plenty, and what it does for my soul is priceless.

The fly system | photo by Jennifer Trijo

Thank you to Selena Britz (Director), Carmel Vistoli (Choreographer), and Leonie Osborn (Production Manager) of the Metropolitan Musical Theatre Company of SA for asking me to MD this show, it has been delightful! See you in the theatre tonight. Here we go again!

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