Live Music In Theatre

Convener(s):    Beccy Owen 

Participants: Mary O’connor, Annie Rigby, Loren O’Dair, Sandra Yee, Laoise Davidson, Natalie Queril, Anne O’Brien, Sara Perka, Rob Dixon

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

I’m a singer/songwriter/composer/poet based in the North east and I’m currently developing a solo theatre piece that will incorporate music. Having not inhabited the ‘theatre world’ as much as the regional/national music scene, I wanted a conversation about Live Music in Theatre in general, to explore various issues and to be given recommendations for innovative and exciting theatre that’s already happening.

If anyone wants to get in touch with any ideas, reflections or to work together, please email [email protected]. My website is



Parallel between accompanying silent film – music/musician becomes another voice or character.

Working with actors and song – can be barriers to singing, even in trained actors. Whole generation of people who culturally, and largely via education system, grew to believe that singing was a specialism occupied by the few, not accessible to all. This is shifting now, but still work to be done. 

What is the underlying fear for people? Being revealed, fear of unknown/failure. People tend to ‘get in the way’ of themselves – singing is about getting out of the way. About letting go and not holding on

Audiences who go see opera already made leap and have expectation re: music’s involvement in the piece.

Naturalism – not so overt. Can be more unstable.

Back to film parallels and the role of soundtracks. One rule – if don’t’ notice the music, job done. Another way – music integral to the meaning and interpretation i.e. ‘There Will Be Blood’ – first 15 mins no speaking, music continues to penetrate and permeate throughout. Facebook group ‘I judge a film by it’s soundtrack’

Very exciting when respect between two crafts – music and acting – apparent.

Questions that arose:

  • How conscious do you want the music to be?
  • How visible/present are the musicians?
  • Tendency to directors to feel they have to be ‘musicians’ to have a voice? Explored idea that all can find a vocabulary, and that characterization may help in terms of asking what you want i.e. from actors who are going to sing ‘what voice will serve the piece, how can actors be helped to find this voice?’ go back to character, research musical styles/heritage.
  • Songs enhancing the action or integral to moving it?
  • When making theatre, how often break into song in the piece? Judge by what the song is serving. Is it a play with songs or a musical?
  • Working to a formulae i.e. in ‘musical’ or subverting/outside - Brecht – anti music. Punk approach, Shockheaded Peter, Sweeny Todd
  • How inject feeling of a gig, that kind of rousing, undulating energy, into theatre piece?
  • How resist the formula when writing musical(s)/musical theatre? Rehearsal room can support = leaving space for musicians to be part of exploration/devising.
  • Using audience participation to create live music – possibility for wildness. What do you allow in? Very interesting question


Music synthesised with action in inspiring, surprising or interesting ways:

Porgy and Bess

Spring Awakening

Lorca’s 13 songs (various versions cited – some effective, some less so)

Tom Bancroft Kidsamonium’ – Wildness that is permitted. Improvising to movement. ‘

The Lost Voice (South Bank)– female beatboxing, live sound effects. Vibrations used. 

Marvin Hamnish – Cabaret show. Made songs from lines from the audience.

Trevor Griffiths ‘A New World’, about Tom Payne

Cinderella (few years ago) Hammersmith – Norwegian Ice Musician. On stage but separate from action. Interval was the ball – musician became purely for audience 

Mask of the Red Death – Cabaret bar in middle. Audience members of the cast. Areas of building different bands in. Segued into gig at end. Seamlessness between situations.

1,000 Revolutions Per Moment – KX. 24th April. Segues gig at end.

Knee High – had a phase of making exciting synthesised theatre. Playing with losing control. Musician as renegade. i.e. Cymbeline at Northern Stage, musician’s played on roof of building.

Chumbawumba – wanted to be part of company. Red Ladder theatre. 

The Worcester Group

Romeo and Juliet – Mercury – Dirty Street Tango Orchestra. Dir. Ed Hughes. Opening 3 weeks time.

Orchestra del Sol – very versatile mobile or static. Pieces have theatrical stories in them.

8th Feb – meeting of panel of musical directors, organised by Musical Theatre Matters. Held in The Stag, Victoria. Role, trends, what’s happening.