Celebration of theatre and performance is at the heart of what we do, with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra (LMTO) being our orchestra in residence.
Back in 2016, we also presented the Broadway classic Ragtime, which is based on the 1975 novel by E.L Doctorow. The story looks at the American Dream at the turn of the last century, exploring the lives of white suburbanites, Eastern-European Jewish immigrants, and Harlem-resident African-Americans against a musical score.
And, in 2018, we reunited the creative team from Ragtime to stage West Side Story. This musical is about a modern day Romeo and Juliet story, focusing on the conflict between two New York street gangs, and what happens when rival gang members fall in love...
Social distancing measures have meant the lights on stages across the world are currently dimmed, with shows sadly being postponed or cancelled. During these unprecedented times, it's important to remember how the arts uplift us, console us, and offer a home for stories and voices that are too often overlooked. That's why we welcomed the recent news of the government's investment in the arts.
We hope that we’ll soon be returning to stages but, to provide us with our theatre-fix until then, we caught up with Ben Ferguson and Paul Saunders, who were both involved in our previous musical productions.
Ben, you were involved in both Ragtime and West Side Story as the Musical Director. What were your different experiences of putting these two shows together? Any similarities?
Ben: Ragtime was the first time I’d worked at Bishopsgate Institute, and indeed the first time the Institute had mounted a full show. I was only fairly recently graduated, and it was one of Toby's (the Director) first directing gigs too, so there was lots of trial and error, lots of "let’s give this a go and see if it works..."
West Side Story came a few years later when everyone was a little more experienced That said, both pieces are pretty epic – we were managing a large cast and a massive orchestra in a comparatively small space and we were working with having a very close relationship between cast and audience.
And Paul, you were involved in West Side Story as the “Fixer”. What does the day-to-day of this role involve?
Paul: Simply put, a Fixer books an orchestra. Each project is different but in the case of West Side Story, my role broke down as follows: with Francesca (CEO at Bishopsgate Institute), I negotiated a fee that would hopefully attract the calibre of players that I wanted to use and with Ben, negotiated the list of personnel that we wanted to use. Once we had a budget, list of rehearsals and performances, and a provisional list of players, the availability checks could start.
Then, during the project, should any member of the orchestra have a work related problem, their first port of call should be me. If I can’t resolve or advise sufficiently, then I make the decision to report the problem to the client. This is a two way process as Fixer, I act as "middle management".
You both mention the orchestra, as with Ragtime, it was performed with a full 22-piece orchestra, and West Side Story was performed with a 38-piece orchestration. Ben, what was it like conducting a show with such a big orchestra?
Ben: For a conductor it’s such a treat to work with such brilliant orchestrations in their original form – in Ragtime, at any moment, every instrument that is playing matters. There’s no flab at all, so every player knows that they count; it's genuine chamber music, so every musician (me included) has to listen carefully to every other player, react to their musical instincts and offerings, and help support one another. When done well it’s absolutely thrilling for players and audience alike!
And Paul, you were in the orchestra in West Side Story as well as working as the Fixer. What was the experience of working in a full orchestra like?
Paul: Well, the first thing to say is it should be the norm, imagine a football team going out with three players – it just wouldn’t happen. There are many reasons why bands are cut in size and they are, of course, usually financial. Space limitations are also a major issues but in the case of West Side Story, there existed a desire to put the production on with full orchestra and such problems were overcome. To play the show with the full orchestra was a fabulous experience that was further enhanced as the orchestra were also on show. For those in the audience that wanted to, they could watch the music being created as well as listen.
As you mention Paul, in both shows, the orchestra was also on-stage rather than in the pit. In what ways does it feel different to have an orchestra as part of the action?
Ben: One of the real joys of both shows was having the orchestra on the stage, and I really noticed how much more attention the audience paid to them – it’s easy to forget about the orchestra when they’re in the pit, but when you can see them as clearly as any of the cast you automatically see more of the "inner workings" of the orchestra: how different instruments interact, who is playing at any one moment, whether different players play more than one instrument etc. I was thrilled that at almost every performance of both shows the entire audience stayed to the end of the playout music, just to hear the orchestra at full-tilt.
Paul: I believe there is an appetite for this as people are genuinely interested in what the music making process is. Chicago ran for almost 20 years and although that wasn’t due entirely to the band being on stage (!) any production that involves the musicians being seen, always goes down brilliantly.
It’s definitely an unusual time for theatre at the moment. With social distancing currently in place, limiting our ability to go to theatres, how would you recommend audiences keep celebrating musical theatre?
Ben: It’s heartbreaking how severe the toll of COVID-19 has been on theatres; it’s looking less and less likely that they’ll be any significant live theatre until the end of 2020, and a number of shows are now looking at 2021 before they can open or re-start performances.
It’s so important for us not to forget just how powerful theatre can be; not only is it hundreds of thousands of people’s livelihoods, it has the un-paralleled power to change how people feel, and how they see the world.
For now I think it’s vital to keep creative juices flowing however we can.
Keep listening to shows old and new, keep planning and working on new ideas for shows when theatres re-open, keep watching the amazing amount of content being made available online (and, very importantly, donate what you can if you do!), and keep in touch with other theatre-lovers in any way you can.
The Institute’s resident orchestra, LMTO, have some wonderful lockdown playlists on their Spotify account if you want some new listening ideas, and there’s a new show almost weekly on the "Show Must Go On" YouTube channel to stream alongside amazing offerings from the National Theatre and others round the globe.
Though our building is currently closed, we're still welcoming our audiences and visitors in via our online programme. We're also sharing stories from previous performances, and from our archives, over on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.