Interview with Robert Meffe, Musical Director
What do YOU think about when the curtain goes up on a brand new musical? Of course, the actors and director get the lion's share of the praise, but we're about to get some first-hand insight as to what goes on with a musical - from the months of advance preparation through each nightly performance.
Joining me is musical director/conductor, Robert Meffe. Mr. Meffe's Broadway credits include Les Miserables, as well as touring credits with the Broadway tour of The Phantom of the Opera and Sunday in the Park with George.
His Off-Broadway work includes The Prince and the Pauper, Violet, and Lighting Out. Regionally, Mr. Meffe has conducted productions of Candide and The Most Happy Fella. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Music Theater at Pace University in Manhattan.
Pati Buehler: What is involved in the birth of a musical and what role does the musical director's play?
Robert Meffe: A musical director is essential to the creative staff of a musical. We have the director, the choreographer, and the musical director. The producers, composers, and writers are one section of the piece. The producers basically put up the money, oversee everything, and then they hire the creative staff. The director is at the top of this creative team; then the music director and choreographer. Sort of on the next level are the costume, set, and lighting designers. But in terms of hands-on creating of the actual piece, the musical is sort of the composer's "voice." The music director is responsible for getting the cast and the orchestra to play and to sing the composer's intentions.
Like a script with words to say, a composer writes out notes for the actors to sing but it's not quite as easy as that. There are many ways you can say "to be or not to be," but there are twice as many ways that you can sing a lyric. The music director's job is to teach the notes, to teach the harmonies, to coach all of the principals with their individual songs, and to really get the intention of the lyric to match how they are going to sing the song.
This is a big part of the musical and the first few weeks are usually spent with the music director teaching everyone the score at the same time the choreographer is teaching them the dancing. There's a lot of collaboration because the choreographer will want changes done in the music; a cymbal crash here or something faster there. The musical director keeps track of this in his score so that he knows what he will tell the orchestra or the cast. The composers usually do not attend the rehearsals; that's why they hire the musical director. It's the music director's job to say, "I can speak for the composer and I know that he wouldn't want it this way" or " I can speak for him and let's try this or that." This is the first part of the job and probably the most important one.
Throughout the rehearsal process, the director leans very heavily on the musical director. In a show like LesMiserables for example, which is practically all sung, any direction has to go through the music director. For example, no one would sing the end of "Bring Him Home" full out. The song is a prayer to God and it ends with a very lightly-orchestrated floating note that sort of ascends up to heaven. So the music director strives to deliver the music with the composer's intentions at heart. Consequently, most music directors are very affable people and the most successful ones are usually very laid back. It's not like a symphony orchestra where the person in the lead has to be a type A personality because an orchestra is a dictatorship where everything has to go through the conductor. Musicals on the other hand, are completely collaborative art forms, so the very successful musical directors like Paul Gemignani, Dave Chase, and Michael Rafter are actually quite personable.