Interview: Musical Director Mike Dixon Talks About His Amazing Career

The conductor, musical director, supervisor, composer and arranger talks childhood influences, career disaster and Shirley Bassey.

By: Aug. 15, 2022
Interview: Musical Director Mike Dixon Talks About His Amazing Career

Mike Dixon is one of the theatre industries legendary characters. With over forty years in the business, he has been Musical Director for more than twenty West End productions including; We Will Rock You, Aspects of Love, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar.

His career has spanned theatre, TV and live concerts, working with everyone from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Shirley Bassey. BroadwayWorld caught up with him as he publishes his new book about his life and incredible career; Turn Around And Take A Bow: My Musical Life.

There's a lovely story in the book about how your primary school headmaster effectively gave you a piano, but who would you say was the greatest musical influence on you?

Without doubt it was my music teacher at school, Trefor Farrow. He gave me a sense of adventure in music and helped open my eyes to ALL sorts of amazing musical flavours and colours.

Your training was at Trinity College of Music, which was more classically-based. Do you have a favourite genre of music?

Simply, no. I am open to all styles both in serious and contemporary music. However, if I need to 'cleanse my musical palette' then I will listen to the Beethoven "Symphonies" - any of them!

Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was fairly early in your career. Does it hold a special place in your heart?

Absolutely, yes. I had finished two years of conducting Aspects of Love and Joseph followed on perfectly. I adore the pastiche songs and the brilliant use of the children in the show. Being involved in a new version of a show from the ground up is hugely exciting - and getting to have some musical influence on the results, whether that be by arranging or from the musical direction is also so rewarding.

In the book, you speak very fondly about the London Palladium - is it your favourite venue to perform in?

It is certainly one of my favourite theatres anywhere in the world. There is such history backstage and on stage. Conducting La Cage Aux Folles there in 1986 was a particular thrill - standing at the musical helm in THAT pit, knowing that every major artist of the 20th century has performed on THAT stage is mind-boggling. You could almost sense their presence, feel the adrenalin and smell the crowd!

What do you think is your best musical arrangement?

Back in 1985 I worked on a show based on the lyrics of E Y Harburg called Look To The Rainbow. One of the songs we used in the show was "April in Paris" with music by Vernon Duke - the piano arrangement that I wrote which was subsequently orchestrated by the legendary Luther Henderson is still one of my favourites - I am very happy to play it at the drop of a hat!

You detail a few near misses and things that have gone wrong, (the story about missing a cue while playing Scrabble is particularly funny) but what is your biggest professional disaster?

I think I would go back to 1981 at the Duke of York's theatre - it was a Beatles compilation show called With a Little Help From My Friends and we lasted for four previews and eight performances! My first West End show and it was devastating that we had to close so quickly.

You have dealt with a huge number of big stars. Can you tell us who has been the best (and worst) to work with?

I can only answer that question with a positive response - it was Dame Shirley Bassey. Our time at Glastonbury in 2007 was a career highlight for me. There are some stars who present a slightly more difficult persona and I have found that they tend to be very insecure or particularly nervous. Engaging them with positivity usually does the trick. If you want to find out a 'worst' moment you will have to read the book!!

You were shocked by the (mostly) poor reviews you received for We Will Rock You. Do you take what the critics say to heart?

I know deep down whether something that I have worked on is good and proper, and though I also know that critics are as fallible as anyone else, because they are in an elevated position what they say can really matter.

Do you think Musical Directors get the recognition they deserve?

Back in 2011 I spearheaded a campaign to gain 'Creative Team Parity for Musical Directors' and I am pleased to say that there is now much better recognition of the role that we play. WhatsOnStage, The Offies and even The Oliviers now have Musical Director related awards - for most of my career they did not.

Do you prefer working on one-off events or long-running shows?

I now prefer to work on one-off concerts, but I count myself very fortunate that my career has been as eclectic as it has. To be involved in major West End musical theatre, entertainment televsion, radio and live events - and to have conducted classical music, jazz, pop, rock as well as all genres of musical theatre has been thrilling.

Mrs Henderson Presents didn't run as long as you would have hoped. Why do you think some shows become long-running successes and others close early?

All theatre producers would be billionaires if that question was easily answered! I would simply say that a show that engages Dame Audience and makes that audience want to go back and see it again will always do well.

Is it hard seeing shows that you were once involved in, as a member of the audience?

I would love to answer that question with a negative but actually I have to be honest and say that I do not like going to see revivals of shows I have done. It is too close to being a 'busman's holiday' I suppose.

Have you ever regretted turning down a job?

I will have to 'take the fifth' on that question!!

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into the music industry?

To be a Musical Director you have to have a lot of musical nous and talent - that is a given - but I think the one thing that is talked about less is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the performer. Make them feel secure and your job will be easier and less demanding. 60% diplomacy and 40% talent!!!

What are your current projects?

Post pandemic and post cancer I am doing less, but I have various concerts and events that keep me busy. Before Leslie Bricusse died last year, Jen Green and I musically completed his mammoth work of setting lyrics to all the great orchestral Gershwin - including "Rhapsody in Blue" and "American in Paris" - it would be wonderful to get those performed as a legacy to him. I also have ongoing projects with composer Mike Woolmans and director Michael Strassen - two musicals to get on!

Turn Around And Take A Bow: My Musical Life by Mike Dixon is published by Troubador Publishing and is available to buy here.

Photo Credit: Mike Dixon