MTN Round Table Discussion: MDs & Gender Inequality

Musical Directors – Career progression pathways and gender balance

2-4pm, Monday 11th September at The Front Room, Arts Theatre

Introductions from James Hadley, Executive Director, Musical Theatre Network and Wendy Gadian, MD and Principal Lecturer, Course Leader Acting in Musical Theatre at Royal Central School of Speech & Drama.  This is MTN’s first event focused particularly on MD’s; hope to have further in the future and to encourage MD’s to join MTN as members – MTN’s members are those working on developing and staging new musical theatre.

Initial networking: Everyone was asked to introduce themselves and share what their entry route into profession of being an MD was. Some observations from this:

–          Luck is often a feature in terms of key opportunities – being in the right place at the right time or meeting the right person/working on the right show that takes you to another level.

–          Some began by working with National Youth Music Theatre or Youth Music Theatre UK – a key entry point for youth experience.

–          Prior to MD courses in Higher Education, most got experience with rep companies/amateur musical theatre/opera companies or on revues at University, until found work on a show that transferred to the West End.

–          Starting as a keyboard player, sometimes as accompanist or rehearsal pianist before moving into playing in the pit of a show, then working way up as Assistant MD, then MD, was a common pathway.

–          Vital to have ‘several strings to your bow’ – often working as an arranger/orchestrator or a teacher or a composer or a musician or all of these, alongside being an MD.


Observations on current industry dynamics for MD’s:

–          The MD role varies considerably from show to show in terms of what is expected. There is a big difference between MD jobs in the commercial sector and in the subsidised sector, including the culture of friendliness. Major subsidised employers such as Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre are among the best at giving opportunities and career progression.

–          It’s a small sector with most knowing each other, so jobs are often given to those already known and previously worked with, making it harder to break into the sector.

–          There are less big West End jobs going now than there used to be in the 1990s. Budgets and risk-taking have reduced.

–          There’s no major award for MD’s, closest is the Oliver Awards’ ‘Award for Best Achievement in Musical Theatre’ which is sometimes awarded to the arranger or the band on a show. Most felt they would rather a general award as there are so few who can really discern what the contribution of the MD is to a show versus the band/arranger/supervisor, and so often it really is a collaborative achievement.

–          Few in the industry understand the role of the MD in detail who aren’t directly involved with MD’s themselves. Often their contributions are misunderstood.

–          The role of the Musical Supervisor has become more common on commercial musicals since ‘Les Miserables’, and is usually someone who sits out front and supervises the music, giving notes to the MD on the overall quality and balance of sound from out front, and then travels to replicate this with further international productions of the same show. Often the roles of MD and Supervisor overlap considerably. If it’s a big show with big personalities, sometimes the Supervisor deals with the politics of these personalities, shielding the MD from this so they can get on with their job. Sometimes the supervisor is only around until the end of previews, but more useful after that. Some question how well the Supervisor role works, some feel it’s best if the MD and Supervisor role is combined so the MD sometimes sits out front and the Assistant MD gets to conduct the show.

–          Challenge of getting the sound right discussed in relation to frustrations around the band increasingly being placed in a box, separate to the live performance space, with sound piped through. Discussions of challenges where the sound designer’s preferences may be given precedence over the MD’s views on attaining best sound quality and balance. Often the optimal sound balance takes months to find on a big musical theatre production, and long-running commercial musicals have sometimes completely overhauled the dynamic after years. The sound tends to change from night to night due to different musicians and audiences.

–          Importance of clear definitions of roles within the collaboration.

–          Importance of the MD having a good relationship with the sound designer, so they work as collaborators. Sound designer should be like the MD’s second pair of ears.

–          Dynamic of working on a new musical with composer in the room very different. The dynamic is often very different from production to production in terms of scale of team and available resources.

–          Sometimes there are quite a few different MD’s working on the same long-running musical for different performances, so it’s easy for musicians to receive contradictory notes.

–          Sometimes easier to get initial opportunities in the subsidised sector rather than commercial sector, where there is more pressure on a Fixer (the orchestral contractor / person employed to put a band together for show, also selecting the MD), when selecting a band and MD, to choose those they’ve worked with before and are most sure of, rather than taking a risk on someone new, as their focus is on delivering the best quality they can through the most assured players. Fixers tend to be a feature of commercial sector, only brought in on a subsidised sector show if it is transferring to the West End.

–          More established culture of working on new musical theatre in USA means there are more opportunities there; some felt there’s less happening around new musicals in UK commercial sector now than in the 1990s. There’s a cultural gap between independent and fringe productions of new musicals and commercial West End productions in UK, with a reduction in risk taking on the commercial musicals compared to 1990s.

–          Half of MD’s attending are represented by an agent.

–          The Musicians Union looked at publishing suggested rates of pay for MD’s, but after consultation decided this would risk leading to more jobs paid at a suggested minimum rate. General advice would be that MD rate of pay should be above the highest paid musician on the production, in some cases double this.


Observations on gender balance within MD profession :

–          Female MD’s often offered role of children’s MD (eg of child cast in ‘Matilda’ or ‘Billy Elliot’) more than male MD’s would be – sometimes this role is particularly challenging with different performers every night and effectively like the Associate Supervisor on the show. Female MD’s sometimes not offered an Assistant MD job if there’s a Children’s MD position on the show.

–          Sometimes female MD gets stuck at an Assistant MD level for an extended time, and will have to start turning down these jobs before considered for MD.

–          Fixers usually select those they already know to play on shows, and as the status quo of pit musicians and MD’s is strongly male dominated, this makes it harder for female MD’s to work their way up. There are four main fixers in London. Only one female fixer was known in London. Some fixers were felt not to employ female MDs unless a show particularly called for this, or unless they were employed as part of a husband and wife team. Often a fixer will have to be specifically asked to put together a group including female players or younger players, or otherwise it will be all mature, white males. Approaches of fixers is changing as new individuals emerge in this role.

–          The culture within bands is male dominated, and while it has improved considerably since the 1990s (when there was overt chauvinism, sexist images displayed in pit, and sometimes no separate female changing room), it is still sometimes uncomfortable for female MDs or musicians, including with comments about whether they will gain the respect of male colleagues. Sometimes female musicians have been observed to have to behave in a more masculine way in this context, in order to fit in, having to engage in male banter and ‘give as good as you get’.

–          Female representation in West End bands considered to be much lower than it should be – there continues to be very few female musicians in the pit for most West End shows. Where an effort is made, the opposite can be true eg all female band for ‘A Little Night Music’ at Menier Chocolate Factory, and 50/50 gender balance for band of ‘Caroline or Change’ at Chichester Festival Theatre. There seem to be more female MDs and band members on Broadway than in West End.

–          By contrast, in student bands there are often more females than males.

–          Most MD’s start as Deputy MD / keyboard player in band, and there are few female keyboard players.  It takes quite a while before someone new is accepted as a Dep – example given of five years as a Dep before given an MD opportunity.

–          Observation that talented female student MD’s at Conservatoires often seem not to be getting the opportunities to move their careers forwards. Suggestions that often only 10% of applicants for MD courses at Conservatoires are from female students, and MD’s receiving requests from young people to sit in pit and observe them at their job come almost exclusively from young males.

–          RSC and National Theatre have been good about considering gender balance when hiring MDs. Subsidised sector tends to have a better culture around this than commercial sector, and tends to include more information about MDs on websites than is the case in commercial sector.

–          Questions about whether the MD role is attractive to young females, and what needs to be done to improve the perception of its accessibility to women. When pits are shut away, the fact that an MD is less visually evident might be a factor – most felt that visible female MD role models was a key issue. There was agreement that inspiring young females early was key to sparking individuals’ ambition to pursue a career as an MD. Published profiles/articles on female MDs in press might also help.

–          The Musicians Union has an equalities section, and have run articles on sexism within the industry. They are looking at doing an event on female players working on shows.

–          Some observed that gender is rarely discussed in the sector; that it still feels uncomfortable to discuss differences in treatment given the much greater number of males in the sector, and there is sometimes still a sense of discomfort around females in a position of power.

–          A key issue is that the MD role is not very family friendly in its hours. If there was more of a culture of crèches/childcare being provided this would remove some of the barriers. Observation that graduating female students often seem socialised to be more financially cautious than their male counterparts who will sometimes try a financially risky career path first, then rethink if it doesn’t work out.

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David Luff, Soho Theatre
"The BEAM pitching days have helped us reach out to a host of diverse new musical theatre stars of the future. With a national reach and a desire to embrace musical theatre of all kinds, BEAM provides an excellent platform for emerging composers and songwriters to present their new ideas."
David Luff, Soho Theatre



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