You started your career as a trumpet player. What inspired you to make the move into musical theatre and how did it come about?
I did start life out as a trumpet player – that seems like a very long time ago! I was mad about the trumpet and very focused on it. I achieved a pretty high level at a young age. In my twenties, I started getting interested in conducting – that was the link for me into musical theatre.
I had gone to Germany to study with the conductor Sergiu Celibidache. While I was there, I was reading Das Orchester – which was basically a jobs journal – and they needed a conductor for Cats in Hamburg. I vaguely knew what Cats was and the money was pretty good, so on a whim I went up and auditioned for it and they hired me! I was very lucky because Trevor Nunn and Gillian Lynne were very involved in the show, and they were so inspiring. I started to fall in love with the whole theatre ethos and mentality, and quickly became engrossed in it. So that was how it happened – very much by accident!
You’ve worked on lots of shows over the years – tell us how your career developed from that first show in Hamburg.
Again, I think the gods were smiling on me as I started working with Cameron Mackintosh very early on. At the time, the industry was very aware of the need to elevate its productions and was looking to hire trained conductors. I auditioned and was hired to work on Les Misérables. That was the beginning of a long working relationship with Cameron Mackintosh – I worked on or had something to do with almost all the shows he put on over a 25-year period. After a while I started supervising shows, which is a very different kind of job as it’s more about launching the productions – everything from working with the director to cast the show to hiring all the musical staff. I also continued my relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cats – I travelled all over the world launching countless productions of the show. For about 15 years I spent a lot of time on aeroplanes – it was wonderful, but by the end I was anxious to take on something new. I then came to the Academy and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. This will be my sixth year and I’m incredibly grateful and happy to be here. It’s been the greatest challenge in the most surprising way – it forces me to think about things in a whole new light.
Tell us about the Musical Theatre course at the Academy – what does a typical day look like for a student?
They start the day at 9am. In the mornings they work on a core set of disciplines. They alternate and will go through three sessions – it could be a song, dance, movement or improv class. The afternoons are largely spent doing projects, which could be any number of things – mainly they are improvised though. I try to encourage the directors who come in to create something new with the students and we’ve had some amazing internal projects over the years. It’s a really important aspect of their training – the students work with directors who are in the industry and could potentially hire them in the future. A big purpose of those projects is to start forming connections, as well as learning how to be in the rehearsal room and knowing what to do and what not to do.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to your students?
Work ethic is the most important one for me, because you can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t have the mental fortitude and resilience to deal with our industry, you’ll struggle. People who don’t work in theatre don’t realise how tough doing an eight-show week is – it’s a really demanding job, both physically and mentally. Trying to give students a sense of the realities of our world is hugely important. Everything in the arts is agony and ecstasy – to get to the level I want them to achieve there’s going to be a certain amount of pain, but if they learn to manage that pain, the pay-off will be worth it. I don’t want to scare anybody off, but it’s important to realise that it’s not the sort of thing you can learn from a book. It takes a lot of practice and day-to-day rigour. It’s about continual practice of the craft.
I want the students on their feet the whole time. Nothing upsets me more than walking by a classroom and seeing a group of students sitting quietly. I want them working, practising, interacting, listening, acting, singing. If we can keep that as their ethos, they stand a good chance of bridging the gap into the industry – and we have a remarkably good track record of doing precisely that. We have so many success stories from the last five years – it’s something I’m very proud of.
The pandemic must have been extremely challenging for the course. Could you talk a bit about how you’ve coped?
I think we’ve done incredibly well in the circumstances. The students have inspired us to keep going – they’ve been brilliant and very philosophical about it. I was really determined that we would carry on as much as was humanly possible, and not just to do OK but to try to exceed all expectations.
Last year, during the first terrible lockdown, we were still putting on masterclasses and doing a whole range of work online. The company couldn’t do its end-of-year show, so we created five incredible films, which the students were able to use for their showreels and to make professional connections – it gave them some great footage. This year’s been no different – during the lockdowns we inundated the students with a huge amount of online work. We concentrated on working with an amazing teacher on acting for camera – what better time to focus on that? – and now the students feel a lot more confident self-taping and working to camera.
I’m so lucky to have such an amazing team, and all of the faculty members have been incredibly generous. Everybody has pulled together to push us over the line. It’s been difficult, but I like to think that the students have travelled just as far as any of our other cohorts.
What are your hopes for theatre post-pandemic? Is there anything you think has changed?
I think lots of things are being re-evaluated – it’s exciting and a little terrifying. I was worried there would be a cultural amnesia coming out of the pandemic, but now the West End is back up on its feet that doesn’t seem to be the case. The theatres have had to cope with the unpredictability of Covid and the inherent issues with keeping the company and the public safe, but the desire to get back to the theatre very much seems to be there. I think a lot of creative things happened because of the pandemic. People started communicating in a different way – for example, a lot of casting directors are now happy to receive video submissions instead of live auditions. I think certain elements of the industry will be permanently affected by what we’ve experienced in the last couple of years. The sands are shifting, and it’s impossible to tell where they’ll ultimately settle. One positive effect is that people are trying to work more efficiently and compassionately across the industry.
What would be your desert island disc?
I love musical theatre, but that’s very much my work – what I listen to for pleasure is a very different thing. I have eclectic taste and I listen to all sorts of different music. Part of the joy of working at the Academy is hearing someone practising away on a Rachmaninov piano concerto at 10pm when I’m leaving my office. I’ll always love classical music, but I listen to pop and rock music too. It could be anything from Miles Davis to a Shostakovich symphony to Mike Stern, a guitarist whose club I visit every time I go to New York. I couldn’t choose just one!