An actor's life: fearing a synthesized future for musical theatre

BY Nicholas Pound

Saturday, 1st May 2021, 7:05 am
Nicholas Pound

Nicholas Pound is a professional actor/singer who has performed in theatre for over 35 years. He has played leading roles in Les Miserables, The Rocky Horror Show, Chess, Evita, Notre Dame de Paris and Man of La Mancha.

He has had a long association with the role of Old Deuteronomy in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. He moved to Old Town in Eastbourne 5 years ago, having lived in Spain for 9 years where he was the founder of vocal harmony group Tres Divos and hosted his own weekly radio show The Sound of Musicals on Talk Radio Europe.

Nicholas shares his thoughts....

"An actress friend was clearing out her loft the other week and sent me a copy of the programme of my first West End production – the 1987 revival of South Pacific at The Prince of Wales Theatre, starring Gemma Craven and Bertice Reading. As I nostalgically flicked through the pages, I was reminded how different West End theatre productions were back then. Especially the size of the orhcestra! It was the norm in those days for a producer to employ up to 30 musicians squeezed into the tiniest of orchestra pits. South Pacific had 26 musicians including 10 strings, a harp, a cor anglais and even a tuba! Nothing beats the sound of live musicians playing real instruments.

"Although theatre has much to benefit from the digital age and ever-expanding technological advancements, sadly musical theatre orchestras have become casualties of this progress.

"When I started performing in Cats in 1998, the London orchestra numbered 18. The 2003 UK tour began with 13 musicians and by the time the show returned to the Palladium in 2014 numbers had been reduced to 8. The reason? Continual improvements in the computerised sampled sounds of many individual instruments which are now programmed into the most sophisticated keyboards. With the flick of a switch, a talented keyboard player can transform the lower half of his instrument into a double bass, for example, while the top half plays an oboe solo. Three keyboards in a modern orchestra can now easily replace 15 live musicians. And the sad thing is…the audience won’t be able to notice the difference.

"The pandemic has enabled West End producers to reassess the size and scale (and expense) of their productions. The West End production of Phantom of The Opera began life in 1986 with 27 musicians and so it remained until the show was forced to close last March. Traditionally, it has always been nigh impossible to end a musician’s employment due to the strength of the Musicians’ Union, but because of Covid, producer Cameron Mackintosh has been able to terminate all contracts. Despite promises that the show would return as the ‘original Phantom’, it has recently been announced that the orchestra will be reduced by 50% when the production returns this summer. Previous players will have the opportunity to re-audition for the new orchestra, but sadly 13 positions will no longer exist.

"Of course, even the likes of Cameron Mackintosh have lost millions in revenue during this hateful year, but it’s difficult to not be cynical and question whether the pandemic didn’t present the perfect opportunity to downsize and save hundreds of thousands of pounds moving forwards.

"The synthesized future of musical theatre has long been inevitable and unfortunately there are many talented musicians who will lose their livelihoods as a result.

"The recent government campaign encouraged Fatima the ballet dancer to retrain in IT. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar advert recommended harpists and tuba players to consider futures in musical keyboard programming? There’s going to be plenty of demand!"