Nigel Lilley is a musical director working primarily in musical theatre. His West End credits include Spring Awakening, Piaf and La Cage Aux Folles. On tour and out of the West End he has musical directed The Bacchae and Acorn Antiques. He trained at King’s College, London and the Royal College of Music. He regularly teaches and has co-written a book with vocal coach, Mary Hammond.
Nigel Lilley - Practising
I think for the rehearsal period it' s all about the preparation obviously. So I' d spend a minimum, depending on the show, but I' d spend a minimum of two weeks before I start the rehearsal period just at my piano, getting the score under my fingers, so it' s really in there, listening to associated records, so things by the same composer, more historical recordings of the same piece that you are going to be working on to get some ideas and also having meetings with the director and the choreographer to get some prep work going. Then in terms of the day to day obviously you can always do more practise but if I' m working on a cabaret, which I often do, or if I' ve got a workshop coming up I will try to do at an hour a day, just practising. And that' s easy to fit around rehearsal schedules, there' s always an hour gap where you can use the piano at the theatre.
It' s easy if you' re doing a straight conducting job, it' s very important to keep your piano playing going and the same when I' m doing a keys MD job, which is where you conduct from the keyboard or piano then I have to get my baton out every now and then and just make sure that' s all going because it might be two years before you conduct anything with a baton so you need to keep that technique going at the same time.
Nigel Lilley - Role in the music team
The musical supervisor role sort of grew in the 1980s really with the sort of mega-musicals which we' ve started to export to Broadway and vice-versa, where the musical teams just became so huge. You' d have a children' s MD, an orchestrator and a keyboard programmer and a plethora of people in the team and it became necessary to have somebody who was overlooking the whole thing. So that' s the musical supervisor' s role, to co-ordinate and oversee and look after every aspect of the production. Then once you' re in a preview period, the supervisor can be out in the house with the sound designer perhaps, actually listening to the sound, talking about orchestration, whereas the MD is in the pit usually conducting. So it' s good to have another set of ears in the house. And then a supervisor, once a production - if it' s lucky enough to go abroad and have other productions - they' ll then do the same for those productions there, also keeping an eye on the original production and working with the MD to keep the quality going there. The composer, it is really on an individual basis how involved they get with the music; some are very happy to hand it over and let your team get on with it; some like to be involved in the orchestration; others are far more interested in the actual singing side of things and not necessarily the orchestration side, so that really is on a person to person basis. And the other people you might find in a team would be a dance arranger, which you often get. A choreographer will have their own person they have who helps routine their dances and comes up with riffs based on the material. And then an orchestrator whose job it is to augment the music for a larger number of musicians.
We have an orchestral fixer for a show and it' s their job to oversee the booking of the band in the first place, the orchestral members, and then to relay all the information to them about rehearsal times and what to wear and all those things and also they' ll make sure the musicians are paid the right amount at the end of every week. In addition to that, I think I mentioned we have these deputy musicians, so a fixer will just keep an eye that we have a dep book. And a fixer will keep an eye on who' s off at any one time and make sure we don' t have the wrong combination of people off. You don' t want to have your drums, guitar and bass player off all on the same show. So you' ll try and mix and match between the departments. And also there' s a cut-off limit to how many deputy players you can have at any one time so you can maintain the quality that you need.
Nigel Lilley - The differences between musical directing a play and a musical
I worked on The Bacchae for the National Theatre of Scotland and Piaf at the Donmar, both of which had lots of - obviously with Piaf, but The Bacchae as well - lots of singing in it. So really I' d say they were far closer to a musical than many plays. I think usually with a play it' s a lot more instrumental cues, a bit less singing. With Piaf we had 20 numbers in it, and similarly with The Bacchae. So there' s varying degrees of singing within it. That is why I was brought in, that' s what I do, more vocal work, whereas on a play you' d often have more instrumental cues.
Nigel Lilley - The importance of a wide repertoire
When I do repetoire coaching at some of the colleges, which I do fairly often, I' m constantly trying to get people to sing a broad spectrum. It' s very common for students, obviously we all want to do what' s new and what' s funky, so it' s very common for people to focus on material from the last three or four years. So obviously people focus a lot on Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel and people like that, who are fantastic writers, but it' s important to balance that and I' m sure Jason and Adam Guettel would say the same thing: to actually look backwards.
When we audition people as well, I' m always surprised we don' t see more Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern songs, because they can serve people so well. You often hear people trying to force material into a different style that it doesn' t quite belong in. So no I' d always encourage to look across, and listen. We' re so lucky with YouTube and all these other facilities that we can absolutely resource any style we want. I mean I did Sinatra at the Palladium, I was Assistant Musical Director on that, so I just listened to loads of Sinatra and the Big Band stuff, just to try to get yourself zoned into that place. Obviously working on Spring Awakening you can listen to some of Duncan Sheik' s pop records and just to try to plug into that style each time.
Nigel Lilley - The importance of detail in Spring Awakening
I think the detail in the score has been there since day one really. One of the amazing things about the show is that we don' t have any big hydraulic effects, we don' t have massive moving bits of scenery, we don' t have any pre-recorded vocals. We have a very open stage, with these fantastic young actors on there. And so it' s all in the detail of the work, and the minute that detail goes, the piece just doesn' t have the same effect. So they absolutely have to be in the moment all the time and the level of detail they have, their knowledge of the score, is far greater than any other score I' ve worked on and that came about from absolute drilling, as they' ll tell you. They are absolutely drilled with their dance moves, and with all of their singing, with their dynamics, their cut-offs are very clean. Because there is nowhere to hide on that stage.
Nigel Lilley - The role of the Musical Director
My job as musical director in the first place in rehearsal is teaching the cast and orchestra the score and working with the director and choreographer to realise the score in the way we' ve imagined. Then once the show is up and running I' d conduct six shows a week and usually note another show and it' s to work with the singers and the actors to develop their performances and to retain detail which we found in the rehearsal room.
Nigel Lilley - Training to be a Musical Director
I did a rather straight music degree at King' s College London. Which had lots of academic stuff, so there was lots of research and lots of pure analysis, mainly classical works. And then after that I was lucky enough, they' d set up a Musical Directors' course at the Royal Academy of Music and I was the first person to do that. It was fantastic as it combined vocal technique which is obviously very important, straight conducting with a baton as well as keys MDing. And just spending a year learning repertoire really. If you have a very broad repertoire that you are familiar with and you can draw on later on it' s sort of invaluable really. I got to know a lot of the Rodgers and Hammerstein scores and I used to play a lot of Gershwin. That' s a kind of good bedrock, it' s a bit like knowing all your Shakespeares really. For musical theatre it' s your Rodgers and Hammerstein and all those 30s and 40s shows which are the basis of what we do. So I think that was really invaluable.
Nigel Lilley - Working with musicians
Once the show' s up and running the main thing with the band to look after is that we have these deputy musicians come in, because obviously we can' t expect every member of the band to be there eight times a week. We can with the actors but necessarily not with the musicians. So on any given day you might have one or two new players in who might have played the show before or it might be their first time playing. So it' s my job then to actually help with cues and just go through the music with them beforehand. And just generally keep an eye on them and make sure they' re ok.
Nigel Lilley - Working with the cast of Spring Awakening
So the great thing about Spring Awakening is that we have a very young cast. They range from 16 to 24. We' ve got them to a certain standard now, in the rehearsal room we got them to a fantastic standard. Now it is my job to maintain that standard with them. So we talk to them a lot about their lifestyles, and just you know, how much they should be going out or whatever. And doing long warm-ups with them every day, talking about what they should eat or drink just to keep vocally healthy. On a day to day basis, I would do probably a half an hour warm-up with them, which usually consists of them doing a quarter of an hour physical warm-up, I will do quarter of an hour vocal warm-up and then we usually do about another 15 minutes of individual work; anything that I want to just look at from the night before then we might just go over. I mean there are some very, very complex vocal harmonies in Spring Awakening. So we need to just keep them all in the pocket.