Interview: Tarek Merchant — Anita and Me's Musical Director
Interview: Tarek Merchant — Anita and Me's Musical Director
27 January 2017
'The rehearsals so far have been jam-packed!' Musical director Tarek Merchant on what's involved in his role on this production.
Tarek Merchant in rehearsals with the cast of Anita and Me
How did you get involved in being a musical director in theatre?
I wanted to train as an actor but my parents were worried about how competitive the industry is and advised me to go to university first and study for a degree. I decided at that stage to study my other love, music, at York University. Three years later when I'd graduated, I still wanted to act and heard that there was a drama school course at Rose Bruford College called Actor-Musicianship: for actors who play musical instruments.
I got in on that course, which was great for me, even though it meant I studied for nearly seven years — I could have been a doctor! Just as I finished studying, a brilliant professional musical director called Sarah Travis, who worked with us on our final production, asked me if I would like to be her assistant musical director on a production of the musical Sunset Boulevard.
I jumped at the chance, assisting her on that production and that then brought me even more opportunities when it transferred into the West End and was nominated for four Olivier Awards. From there on, I was set on a path that felt like the perfect combination of both my music education and my training as an actor. I could flex both musical skills and my understanding of drama and the needs of theatre performance.
Over the next few years, I graduated to musical directing myself and have been lucky to get the chance to work with a range of theatres and companies, including the RSC, Bristol Old Vic, Birmingham Rep, Northern Stage, Manchester Royal Exchange, The Watermill Theatre, BBC Radio 4, Bolton Octagon, and a number of large-scale UK tours.
Tell us what role you play on this particular production of Anita and Me?
When Anita and Me was first performed at Birmingham Rep [in 2015], I played the role of Hairy Ned, the hippy musician in Tollington, and I was also musical director. This time around, I am not performing as the character, but I am still directing all the music for the production. This means that I have had to teach all of the vocal lines to the cast, distribute harmony lines based on the different vocal capabilities of different cast members, work to teach the actor now playing Hairy Ned the keyboard parts to play, and generally work to drill and polish (now I sound like a dentist!) all of the musical moments.
I try to start the music learning as early in rehearsals as possible for a show like this so that all the actors have the maximum amount of time to absorb the material. Normally, I will have also done some preparatory work on the music before rehearsals begin — originally, I transcribed the songs for the show based on demo recordings provided by the composers, Ben and Max Ringham. During rehearsals, I also provide vocal warm-ups for the cast so that they are supported in developing strong and robust singing voices and good vocal health by the time the show opens with its demanding schedule.
My work as musical director will end officially on press night, which is when my contribution on the music comes to an end. After that, Tom Oakley who plays Hairy Ned will be in charge of leading the music in performance and maintaining it on the road, although I plan to pop back and see it to keep an eye on it all and make sure it's all still in good shape!
What has happened in the rehearsal period so far?
The rehearsals so far have been jam-packed! As well as learning all of the music, the cast have had to do 'table work' — where they discuss the particular demands of the text, through games and exercises, they have all been working on the characters, and then of course, the whole show has to be 'blocked', where the actors' stage positions are set.
There is also a community cast which joins the professional cast in each city, so they have come in [to rehearsals] at various points to be integrated into the show. It's a lot of fun, but is also very hard work and often long hours to get through all the material in time.
Where the magic happens — the piano in the rehearsal room
Can you tell us more about how you are collaborating with sound designers Ben and Max Ringham?
I had never worked with Ben and Max before Anita and Me, I felt that I won their trust when I met and played some piano for them in London, discovering we were all biscuit lovers! Some people in the theatre industry can like difficult working environments with creative conflict, but quite early on I came to feel that the Ringham brothers were keen on an enjoyable and fun artistic environment for collaboration...which suits me! They're both fantastic musicians and really know what they want from their music, but because my skills are about shaping their score with the cast and translating their music from their demo recordings into live performance with our actors, it has always felt that our roles are complementary.
I have worked closely with the Birmingham Rep sound department as there are cross-overs between the live music and pre-recorded effects. I have also been working alongside the directors and stage management to schedule the music rehearsal calls so that we can make the most of everyone's time. I really enjoy this part of the process and collaborating with the rest of the creative team to try to realise a shared vision for the production.
Do you have any advice for a young person who might want to be a musical director?
First and foremost, keep practising your instrument! Most musical directors are pianists in some way, so having good keyboard skills is going to be really valuable. I hear all too often of people who gave up their instrumental studies when they were a teenager and now wish they'd kept them up, so I would urge anybody with an interest in musical directing to persevere through the tough moments of practice.
At university, I was given all of the unglamorous accompanying opportunities rather than the sexy piano solos. In hindsight, I feel this was a much better preparation for being a musical director — working with singers and playing in ensembles rather than as a soloist. So try to get lots of accompanying experience and work/play with other musicians, singers and actors wherever possible. Sight-reading is a really valuable skill too, which you can practise and get better at, so don't be put off if you don't think you're not a natural. And finally, like in any workplace, people want to work with someone who is easy to collaborate with, open to ideas and a nice energy to have in the rehearsal room. So I always urge people to be responsive, friendly and try not to get too stressed. It should be fun! Oh, and eat a biscuit now and then...
Anita and Me opens at Wolverhampton Grand theatre, where it plays from 14 to 18 February 2017. It then tours to Cheltenham, Blackpool, Nottingham, Bradford and Edinburgh.