Music Directors and Music Supervisors: What's the Difference?

This month we’re going to take a short look at the difference between Music Directors and Music Supervisors.  The two terms often get thrown around by the uninitiated and the initiated alike as synonyms, but the reality if a bit more divided than that, and each has very specific and important roles to perform.  To make matters even more confusing, the two roles often intermix, and oftentimes the Music Director just assumes both roles.  But enough setup; let’s dive right in!

Professional Theatre: Broadway and Beyond

In the professional world (consisting of Broadway and large regional theatre for the purposes of our discussion), the Music Director and Music Supervisor are two different people.  Let’s examine each role.

Music Supervisor

The term music supervisor originates from touring companies of Broadway productions.  The music supervisor is the surveyor and leader of the entire music department, no questions asked.  The music supervisor typically attends casting calls for lead roles and those with heavy vocal demands.  They also generally take over most or all of the duty of rehearsing the cast.  Music supervisors are also in charge of making the creative decisions (along with the composer, typically) of who to hire as orchestrator and dance arranger (if needed).  Today, music supervisors exist on practically all music teams of Broadway musicals and major regional houses.  They tend to return to continue to rehearse with principals and understudies as the run continues, and they are paid royalties on the show.  This job can be quite lucrative in a way that music direction is not, simply due to their pay being tied to the profits of the production.  On the other hand, with their pay tied to the profits of the show, music supervisors can be in a much tighter spot when it comes to struggling productions.

Music Director

Music directors (when a music supervisor is part of the team) do everything else traditionally associated with music direction.  They rehearse and lead the pit orchestra, lead some of the rehearsals with the cast.  They are the conductor or pianist-conductor of the pit, and therefore the musical leader of the production during performances.  Music directors are usually salaried, resulting in a paycheck that is less directly tied to the profits of the production.

Community and Amateur Theatre

In community and amateur theatre, these two roles are almost always combined into the singular role of music director, with good reason.  Often hiring two personnel is not only too expensive, it can introduce yet more bureaucracy to the production of a musical.  Some professional theatre still works this way as well, with a single person leading both the music department and the pit orchestra every night, and many also assume the role of orchestrator (Alex Lacamoire is an excellent example of this, serving all three roles on both In the Heights and the more recent Hamilton).

That was a short one, but I felt it prudent to have something to point to when someone asks the question, “Like, what even is the difference between them?” (accent may or may not be included).  Next month will be the first in hopefully a long-running series where I highlight a particular musical I recently worked on, providing context, tips, and other useful tidbits about the show for future music directors.  We’ll be beginning with The Last Five Years by composer Jason Robert Brown.