The Musical Marriage: Your Musical Director and You (Part One)

October 11, 2020 | By

Article #9 in this running series.

Your musical director is probably your first and most primary connection as a cabaret artist. In fact, if you don’t have a director and/or writers with whom you’re working (both of which we will be addressing in future pieces), they may very well be your only collaborator in the creation of your cabaret act.

Onstage, your musical director—either as your sole instrumentalist (most often on the piano) or as the conductor of a small or large ensemble—is the person on whom you are the most reliant for all the musical, rhythmic, and performance support. They are making the show happen onstage with you. They may not be your acting partner, but they are certainly your musical partner.

Therefore, the relationship between the cabaret artist and their musical director is much like a marriage, or any other long-term artistic partnership in development with all its positives and negatives. At its best, there is the passion for the work, the joy of finding songs and interpretations, of rehearsal, improvisatory exploration, discovery, and growth. This can include both artistic growth and personal growth as disagreements arise and both find ways to better express their rationales, explore other possibilities of accomplishing the same needs, and discover ways to have the best ideas co-exist. It may be challenging, but the process can be so rewarding and the product can gain so much from that tension and resolution. 

Betty Buckley on Kenny Werner: “Sometimes, I’ll do a song like a painting. I will show a painting to my musical director, Kenny Werner, and say, ‘I want this song to sound like this texture, these colors.’ And he does it!”

At the other end of the spectrum, the relationship can be a futile power struggle, or even a war of who’s right and who’s wrong. All the issues that you have with partnerships, control, and, yes, money may come up in this relationship, and, even though they are the paid professional in the equation, issues may come up for your MD as well. In the worst case, you may find yourself negotiating their issues and paying them for the privilege, which is not a happy or productive place to find yourself.

So you want to make sure that you choose someone with whom to work who accepts, understands, and appreciates that even if they know more than you do about some things—and even if they’re in the position of guiding you and advising you in a number of different ways—this is still your show, it is still an artistic expression of your “self” within that show, and, additionally, that you are the client whose needs must ultimately be met. Anyone who does not treat you that way, who does not completely respect your vision and your autonomy, is to be avoided.

Natalie Douglas on Mark Hartman: “We met working in a piano bar. He came there, people told me I would love him and I thought ‘You don’t know me… We’ll see,’ and it was instant. There was a mind-meld. He played what I heard in my head. It was also really clear that when we worked together we got a lot out of it. We grew together, we could each go farther.”

So what does a musical director do? This can actually change from musical director to musical director, singer to singer, and show to show. So instead of looking at what a musical director does do, let’s look at what they can do, and might do. (Given that understanding, be aware that any of these might not be on the list at any one time.)

1) Play the piano or other primary accompanying instrument;

2) Recommend songs.

3) Help select songs.

4) Explore and improvise accompaniments with you as you play with the song in different keys, tempos, and feels—that is, help to create the ultimate arrangement of the song.

5) Recommend and set keys, tempos, feels, beginnings, and endings for the songs.

6) Create arrangements for you of songs on their own and give them to you to learn.

7) Help with vocal issues within the songs and arrangements (in a very limited way; they are most often not voice teachers or vocal coaches).

8) Give you feedback on song interpretations (not on the acting interpretation, but on the musical interpretation).

9) Hire or recommend additional musicians or singers if desired.

10) Write parts for back-up singers, or write out parts created in rehearsal.

11) Lead rehearsals for any additional musicians or singers added to the show.

12) Write out needed sheet music for themselves and/or for any additional musicians.

13) Conduct additional musicians or singers during the shows.

14) Unobtrusively (or obtrusively, hopefully with humor) help you during the show with the unforeseen. This can include giving you a word if you go up on a lyric, reminding you what comes next if you get lost, or helping to cope when the completely unexpected happens (which it often does).

Barbara Cook on Wally Harper: “I remember I brought him daffodils that first day, and we just instantly made really good music. Instantly. Perfect affinity for each other’s taste. We spent hours and hours talking and getting to know one another. “

There are many different aspects of the musical director role, so much more than just playing the sheet music of a song you hand them, as written, in the key in which it was written. Because of this, it is important that you work with a musical director who is adept at the aspects of the role you are most in need of  right now, for this show. It is also important that they understand what you do and don’t expect from them. You are the one who decides your objectives, your budget, and your teammates; if you get the feeling that a prospective MD thinks they need to be in charge of everything—including you—they are not going to be of much assistance in your finding your voice as a cabaret artist. And that is ultimately what this is all about: your cabaret identity and finding your voice.

Upcoming in Part Two: Delving into relationships—Interviews with performers and their musical directors.

Category: Cabaret Handbook

About the Author ()

Shellen Lubin  is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President, League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference's Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called "Monday Morning Quote.",, @shlubin

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