Interview – meet the talented actor-musicians of Through the Mill at the Southwark Playhouse

(left to right) Carmella Brown, Chris McGuigan, Perry Meadowcroft and Rob Carter in Through the Mill at the Southwark Playhouse, London. Picture: Darren Bell

(left to right) Carmella Brown, Chris McGuigan, Perry Meadowcroft and Rob Carter in Through the Mill at the Southwark Playhouse, London. Picture: Darren Bell

Through the Mill, the backstage dreamscape featuring pivotal moments in the life of legendary actress and singer Judy Garland, transfers from London Theatre Workshop to the Southwark Playhouse this July.

Transferring with the production are the actor-musicians who originated their roles in the acclaimed premiere production last December. Between them, they play more than 20 separate instruments, making up the onstage Judy Garland band for the three actresses who play Judy Garland, Lucy Penrose (Young Judy), Belinda Wollaston (Palace Judy) and Helen Sheals (CBS Judy).

Musical Theatre Review caught up with the company of talented actor-musicians during a recent photoshoot to publicise the transfer.

Put simply, an actor-musician is an actor who has a musical skill, and this production of Through the Mill continues a long tradition, in the UK, of featuring actors who provide a form of musical accompaniment to the piece.

Using music as an integral part of theatrical performance is as old as the theatre itself. However, in recent years the term ‘actor-muso’ has made its way into the mainstream theatre vernacular; particularly in revivals of older, previously ‘big’ musicals.

While the traditional view is that actor musicianship was a vestige of the musical theatre (particularly in productions at The Watermill or Theatre Clwyd, for example) the use of actors who play instruments can also be found in the straight play; for example, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys uses musicianship throughout to convey some of the themes in the piece.

The use of the actor-muso is not only a UK specific device; successful actor-muso productions of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (admittedly, in a remounted John Doyle production that originated at The Watermill), Company (again with Doyle in the director’s chair) and Into the Woods have featured significantly in New York theatre seasons in recent years; with the latter transferring to the Menier Chocolate Factory in July.

“Interestingly, this is the first production where, as an actor-musician, there are moments where my character is absolutely aware that he is playing a musical instrument,” says Tom Reade, pianist, clarinettist and saxophonist who plays Garland’s original arranger, and lifelong friend, Roger Edens.

“Invariably when I am at the piano, I am teaching Young Judy (Lucy Penrose) the songs Garland then made famous, and so I am very much in the scene and consciously playing. However, there are other moments, mainly where I am playing my other instruments, where even though I am physically present, my presence is solely to provide the audio, almost like a Greek chorus. It makes for a very visceral experience for both actor and audience.”

Reade is joined by fellow cast member Don Cotter, who explains that, as percussionist, his role as a musician is equally as layered: “there’s a wonderful moment in the show where my character Louis B [LB] Mayer, the head of MGM, and therefore a very important man, is responsible for the ‘clang’ of the bell in the ‘Trolley Song’. It’s a very funny moment, seeing this person who has been so powerful in other scenes, ringing bells furiously during a huge production number. I’m terrified that I’ll forget which bell to clang, and when!”

Cotter raises an interesting point; as an actor-musician you are responsible for playing a character and then also forming the orchestra, roles that are not usually shared.

Doesn’t that make for a stressful rehearsal process? “Absolutely,” confirms Carmella Brown, a flautist who plays Garland’s dresser, and confident, Miss Kramer, “It’s sometimes difficult making the distinction, and I guess the answer is to try and not make a distinction. We were very lucky in the first run of Through the Mill, our musical supervisor Simon Holt made sure we had plenty of time for band calls. Combining the two is what rehearsals are all about.”

Bizarrely, band calls have already started, quite some time before the main period of rehearsals begin. “Ray [Rackham, writer/director of the piece] made it very clear when we all signed up for the transfer that band calls would be earlier than last time, as the musical signature of the piece has developed so much now. We have another four musicians joining us in what is being described as ‘Garland’s pit band’. They are providing the more ‘brassy’ sound that the previous run didn’t have; and we’re all terribly excited to perfect that fuller sound”, says Cotter.

“I think the trick is in practising. Practice whenever you get the opportunity,” continues Chris McGuigan, a tenor and alto saxophonist who plays producer/director Norman Jewison (who was responsible for some of the – now acclaimed – Judy Garland Shows in the 1960s).

“You need to remember that when you are playing, you are also performing, so you have to become comfortable with how your character then becomes an extension of the instrument, and vice versa.”

Rob Carter, who plays piano, bass guitar and violin in the play, and performs the role of Hunt Stromberg Jr, a CBS executive and arch nemesis of the 1963 version of Judy Garland, agrees: “It’s very much a performative style of playing that is at the heart of a successful actor-muso production. In the play, Judy explains that when she sings she feels the need to perform. She says something along the lines of ‘you can’t half ass it in front of thousands of people’. The same can be said for actor-musicians, you perform as much as you play.”

But you have to be good. “If you’re an actor-musician, definitely put it on your CV,” says Perry Meadowcroft, who plays the drums and acoustic guitar in the play, and performs the role of renowned producer and director George Schlatter, “but be prepared to be challenged. You have to be technically able to play well, it’s as simple as that, and good musicianship is less subjective. There is less a measure of what makes something good when it comes to acting, it’s very much down to the relationships you are able to establish with both your fellow actors and the audience. But hitting a bum note, well you can’t really hide that.”

Writer/director Ray Rackham, sums it up: “I wanted to use the device of actor musicianship in Through the Mill when I started to write the play many years ago. Music shares an alarmingly similar storytelling journey with writing a play, although music very much has its own unique and beautiful narrative.

“Through the compositions of the likes of Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, whose work features in the play, we can weave our own kind of magic. What has been brilliant in working with a whole bunch of talented musicians and actors is that they have all perfected the art of listening to each other, be it on stage as their characters or as musicians. And so what they create is simple: harmony.”

* Through the Mill opens at the Southwark Playhouse on 6 July and runs until 30 July 2016.

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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