Billy Bullivant on life as a musical director

Musicians’ Company Yeoman Billy Bullivant is a freelance musical director, pianist, arranger and musician. Winner of the Company’s Musical Direction award, here Billy talks about the role of the musical director and his involvement in the UK premiere of Preludes at Southwark Playhouse this September.

In September 2018 I started studying at the Royal Academy of Music on the Musical Direction and Coaching programme. This is a one year intensive masters degree designed to train musical directors who aim to work at the cutting edge of musical theatre all over the world. Whilst studying I worked with some world class industry professionals and trained under leading Music Directors and Supervisors based in London.

The Royal Academy of Music provided me with so many opportunities and skills that I’ve already begun using in my professional career. One of the highlights of my time there was being musical director for a production of Michael John LaChuisa’s The Wild Party. This was a huge challenge and such a complex piece, both musically and artistically. It was a two hour sung through musical with no interval which we performed seven times over the space of four days. It was mentally and physically exhausting for both the company, the orchestra of seventeen, and myself, but because of this, the sense of achievement felt by every member of the company was huge. Even more rewarding for me was hearing from audience members just how taken aback they were by the production, and I know a number of people returned after their first time to see the show again.

The role of a musical director is a complicated one, with the MD responsible for a wide range of tasks and responsibilities whilst working on a musical. Firstly, the MD must teach the company the music, working with them as an ensemble and individually. They must also work closely with the director and producers to create a unified vision for what you want the whole piece to sound like and create a musical world that works for the show you are doing. An MD is also responsible for coaching the band or orchestra, as well as conducting each performance once the show is running. Often at this stage the MD is one of the only members of the creative team left that is present for every performance, so your role also involves keeping the company on top form and ensuring that the show grows but keeps the musical integrity originally set down by the creative team at the beginning of the rehearsal process.

Whilst at The Academy, I spent a lot of time considering how a musical director’s input can really shape the popular success of a musical production by taking the composer’s work and really conveying the whole story through music to the audience. I realised that perhaps the most important aspect to consider is how to connect the lyrics to the music to tell the story of every character in as powerful and memorable a way as possible. As important as it is to teach a song ‘correctly’, respecting the composer’s intentions, it is so much more important to me that each actor has really connected with their character so that every note they sing carries a whole weight of emotion. Only then does an audience feel moved by the character and story, as opposed to simply enjoying the music and the sound of each singer.

Often, musicals have great emotional arcs and cover lots of different emotions over the two and a half hour running time. As a musical director it is your job from day one to talk with the company about the music and lyrics. How does this piece of music tell the story? Which words should you emphasise in this phrase to make sense to the audience? What is the character’s intention here? These are all questions an MD has to ask when teaching the music and this often takes place before the director has even stepped into the room. Once these questions have been answered it is much easier to tell a convincing story, and how successful you are at this has a huge impact on the overall success of each production.

Since graduating from the Academy, I have begun working as the assistant musical director and keyboard player for the UK premiere of ‘Preludes’ which opens at Southwark Playhouse at the beginning of September. We are now in week five of rehearsals and it is proving to be such an exciting production to be part of. The piece incorporates Rachmaninoff’s classical repertoire with new music by Dave Malloy to tell the story of young Rachmaninoff’s struggle to overcome writers block following the disastrous premiere of his first symphony. The piece explores how Rachmaninoff visited a hypnotherapist to help him overcome this, which eventually leads to the end of his block when he wrote his much beloved composition, his second piano concerto.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the Musicians’ Company for their support they have given me over the last year.

 

Stay up to date with Billy’s work on Twitter @billybullivant

 

Interview by @suzywillmott