Composer-Music Director Relations

This month we’re going to take a look at the relationship between the composer and music director of a new musical.  We’ll examine the dynamic from both sides of the table: when is it appropriate for the music director to offer input on the score, and when is it appropriate for the composer to offer input during the rehearsal process?  What is the give and take between these two artists like, and how much does each contribute?  Let’s dive right in!

The Composer

From the outset, this discussion may seem pointless.  After all, isn’t the composer the final arbiter on everything musical in his or her show?  In many ways, yes, but in reality there is much nuance in the relationship the composer has with his or her music director.  Let’s first examine the responsibilities of the composer:

  1. Write the score

That’s it.  The composer is not required by any convention to continue to give input after completing the score, and the composer is not required to orchestrate, arrange, or alter his or her score in any way.  The “score” may come in many forms: a collection of lead sheets, a completely notated piano/vocal score, a full-blown orchestration, or even just a handful of lyric sheets with some chord symbols.  Anything goes, and it often falls to the music director, supervisor, and/or orchestrator to fill in the gaps and bring the score up to final polish.

Now, more often than not, the composer will land on the opposite end of the spectrum, and rather than remove themselves from the process, they will ingrain themselves to an extreme, micromanaging the music personnel and constantly dictating to them their jobs.  This can be frustrating from the perspective of the music director, but it is important to remember that the ultimate judge will always rule in favor of the composer’s intent.  Sometimes things can get murky when one is dealing with a composer that is incapable of certain tasks that are generally taken for granted; reading music, for example.  It is therefore important to establish from the beginning what the boundaries of this dynamic are, and for the composer to clearly communicate when they would like feedback and collaboration and when they would like execution rather than discussion.

The Music Director

As we examine the responsibilities of the composer, let us examine the responsibilities of the music director (generally speaking.  In reality some of these duties may belong to others):

  1. Provide feedback to the composer
  2. Work with the composer to develop the score
  3. Arrange and orchestrate the score
  4. Teach the score to actors
  5. Hire and rehearse musicians
  6. Play the score in rehearsal and in performance
  7. Conduct the pit

As one can see, the list of responsibilities for the music director is seven times as long as the one for the composer (of course this is a statistical trick; when one list is only one item long, the comparison doesn’t really mean anything).  Nonetheless, the music director is the one often left without options in the push and pull of the composer-music director relationship, as the work is the composer’s, and therefore subject to his or her final whims.  One should note, though, that the music director is not being hired to write the score, and this is an important distinction, one that is easy to forget when involved with a show with a (possibly) incompetent composer.  The music director is hired as an employee to facilitate the effective performance of another’s musical work, and if the musical work is less than extraordinary, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.  The music director is there to clearly and competently rehearse and perform the show.  Yes, one of the duties on the list above is “2. Work with the composer to develop the score”, but that does not mean battling with the composer to rewrite the show under your terms.

I assume, however, that the issue outlined above is not the issue many music directors are facing when working with composers on new musicals.  Rather, I believe the far more common problem is a composer attempting to give input in areas of the musical execution of which they have no knowledge.  Orchestration and rehearsal are often the two biggest areas of contention.  This can be understandably frustrating for music directors: “I was hired to teach the score, so let me teach the score.  Don't get in the way during rehearsals.”  I have faced this exact dilemma recently in my work as music director, and it was a challenging situation.  Ultimately, I have found this to be the best solution:

Before rehearsals begin, establish an avenue of communication through which all feedback the composer has during rehearsal will go.

The composer and music director may agree to meet before or after each rehearsal over to coffee to compare notes.  Or the dramaturge or director may field all complaints/feedback/criticisms of the composer and then communicate those to the whole of the creative team.  Whatever the process, they all essentially place a barrier in between the composer and the performers, allowing the directors to do their jobs while still allowing the composer to be involved in rehearsal.

Stay tuned for next month’s post about the always frustratingly political and intriguing process of casting a musical.  Until then, I wish all of you luck working with the composers in your life!