Our first production of the Autumn – Winter 2015/2016 season is just one week away from opening. The devilishly fun Hot Stuff takes us on a whirlwind ride through the very best of the ’70s and ’80s as we follow Joe Soap on his quest for fame and fortune. There will disco, there will be glam, there will be prog and there will be punk. Bring your dancing shoes.
Ahead of the opening, Fay Hough spoke to Howard Gray, Musical Director and Arranger for Hot Stuff, on his career to date, his favourite career moments and the life of an MD.
I’m originally from the Midlands – Worcestershire, near Birmingham. But I went to Liverpool University and then onto Manchester Polytechnic and did the thing that most people do and stayed close to where I went to university. I love working here at the Coliseum.
I’m not a massive fan of musicals per se; however, I do like Jesus Christ Superstar as it just rocks out.
My favourite track is Space Odyssey (the David Bowie hit), as musically it is most interesting. There are generic musicals like Chicago and then there are productions like Hot Stuff, which are slightly different. Songs that are theatrical always work and Space Oddity certainly is that!
Initially, I trained as an actor and back then there wasn’t such a thing as actor/musician like there is now. But for shows I was increasingly being asked to play guitar and other instruments – to the point where I found myself forming an entire band. From this I got much more work as a musician than I did as an actor. The first time I was asked to be a Musical Director was back in 1999 for Liverpool Everyman Theatre’s production of Puss in Blue Suede Shoes, at first I was a bit reticent, but I soon became hooked.
The first would be Alan Plater’s The Last of the Blond Bombshells, which started off at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, was picked up by the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, went to Hampstead Theatre in London and toured worldwide. And, of course, it’s been performed at the Coliseum too. It was meant to be a one off production, but was such a fabulous production that it was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It was amazing to be part of something that caught fire in the way that it did.
The second would have to be Close the Coal House Door, also by Alan Plater, performed here at the Coliseum. I really enjoyed this show so I’m intrigued by The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall (famous for Billy Elliot) – that’s coming to the Coliseum in February 2016.
Every show is different. For the majority of shows there is no existing music, so I spend a lot of time just thinking it through. I sit in my office, sitting and thinking and staring out of the window and then the ideas start coming. I start off with very rough drafts and it just gets neater as rehearsals progress; I keep writing throughout rehearsals as I still get ideas. Sometimes you have to re-invent music, for example folk music isn’t very theatrical and so you have to make it so. The music also has to be visibly interesting and not too long – a three minute pop song would never work on stage, even a two minute song can seem very long in a theatre setting.
My favourite part of being a Musical Director is hearing the music come together. I love sitting in my office, working through my ideas and devising how one song moves onto another. It’s great to hear the little segues come together. And I love working with actors – it’s great fun.
The job covers a lot of bases and there are different types of Musical Directors. If you want to work in the west end with a live orchestra in the pit then the way forward is the traditional one of academically studying music at college. However, with the type of Musical Director that I am, it has really helped that I was once an actor myself, as I can understand the actors’ perspectives. It is also really useful to have an interest and broad knowledge in every genre of music. Lastly, luck plays a huge part too, and, for me, that was my big break at the Liverpool Everyman in 1999 with Puss in Blue Suede Shoes.