The term music director can mean different things in different situations, even within musical theater. I can’t really explain what all a music director of a symphony does day-to-day, but I can tell you what I do.
I work as a music director for regional theaters and tours. That means that I’m essentially in charge of all the music-related aspects of a musical theatre production. I teach the singers their parts, then coach them in the phrasing, pacing and intent of each song. I rehearse the orchestra and sometimes, in smaller theaters, I even hire the orchestra myself. I’ve worked as a standing conductor, but more often than not I’m playing in the pit myself, usually the keyboard 1 book. Sometimes I’m needed to accompany during the rehearsals of a production, but many times a dedicated rehearsal accompanist is hired for that purpose.
The music director, in theatre at least, is usually a middle-management position. While I’m in charge of managing the singers and musicians, my boss(es) are the music supervisor, director and any higher-ups at the theater I’m working for (artistic director, managing director, producer, etc.). Once the show opens, the director usually leaves the production and the music director, dancer captain and the stage manager are responsible for maintaining the artistic quality and intent of the show.
That part of the job can be hard. As a show goes on – especially in long runs – a show naturally shifts and settles. Actors takes a longer pause in one part, less in another, tempos can fluctuate, and singers and musicians often start to stylize parts to suit their personality. This isn’t necessarily all bad – one of the wonderful things about theatre is it’s spontaneity and character. But when an actor or musician starts to take too many liberties with the parts, the music director (or stage manager if it relates to acting) is the one that tells them to roll it back. I’ve learned over the years how to give different people notes about their performance with professionalism and diplomacy, and I believe this is one of the skills that are cultivated by successful music directors. With musicians it usually doesn’t matter – we are used to getting notes from a conductor. Actors are different, and it’s usually necessary to give actors notes in private with all the kindness you can muster. If you are a music director, you know what I mean.
Compensation for music directing can vary widely. The compensation package usually includes a weekly salary, lodging and transportation both from your city of origin and to the theater from your lodging. In small, regional, non-union theaters and tours you can expect to see music directors start at around 40%-50% more than the base salary of the other musicians in the orchestra. Broadway music directors make 75% more than sidemen according to the AFM wage scales, which means a little more than $2,600 a week. Small summer-stocks start around $500 a week, and national tours start around $1,200-$1,500 a week (non-union, with per diem). Note that music directors are often required to take a 20% pay cut during rehearsals. Full salary begins once the show opens.
“Lodging” can either be a hotel room or a furnished apartment. I’ve been very lucky in my career so far and I’ve always been happy with the lodging that theatres have provided me. Music directors are always given their own room, if not their own apartment. Some theaters expect music directors to share living spaces with actors or musicians, and while it can sometimes be fun to make new friends, this can complicated the management status of the position.
There are some music directors that are able to manage their people and afterwards go out drinking with them too, but I’ve always found this to be problematic. I’ve talked to other music directors that say the same. There is a burden of leadership that good music directors must respect, and for me, that often means keeping a professional distance from those I am charged with managing. This is probably my least favorite part of the job.
I got my start with music directing at the community theater level in my home town. When I was a young kid I used to act in the local kids theater program. As I grew up I decided that acting wasn’t for me, but music was. It was a natural progression to move into the rehearsal accompanist spot at the theatre company, and after a few years of that I became the music director of the shows. At that time I was hiring the band, writing the parts, playing the rehearsals, rehearsing the singers – all of it! At small companies like that the music director often does a lot of the work that would be delegated to others at more professional level theaters.
The jump to professional theatre came after I made the jump to full-time, professional musician. I quit my day job, spent 6 months playing keyboards on a cruise ship, and when I returned I worked up a portfolio of local clients that I would accompany for. Eventually I started accompanying for professional theatre companies – first auditions, then rehearsals – and I worked my way up.
After a few years I outgrew the market I was working in and I submitted my name to Broadway contractors in New York. I got a call soon after to play 2nd keyboards on a tour in Taiwan, did well there and was then promoted to music director for the next tour (this time a North American tour). After successfully music directing a national tour, it was easy to find more work. Since that time I’ve worked at regional theaters in Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, Hawaii and driven across the U.S.A. dozens and dozens of times in busses and cars and planes. When I can’t find work as a music director, I still find jobs as a keyboardist or accompanist – but not almost always in the theater market.
If you want to be a music director on Broadway or anywhere else in musical theater, there’s a lot you need to know. Almost without exception you must play piano. You must understand singing and how to coach singers on diction and placement and the millions of other things that go into voice. You must be able to conduct and piano-conduct (two similar, but different skills). You must be able to get along well with others and sometimes work long hours in rehearsal. Most of all, you must like musical theatre!
There are days that I’d bend your ear with complaints, but for the most part, I like my job. I know some musicians can’t stand the idea of playing the same show every night, but I don’t mind it. I’m always trying to play a better show than the night before, and I always find something new to work on.