Starting a career in musical theatre: A West End chair

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Article by Eddie Tatton

Ok, so I have been asked to pen a few words about some tips and ideas toward advancing a career in musical theatre. I am a guitar player currently working in the West End on The Bodyguard at The Dominion so this will come from a muso point of view but could help in other vocations.

Practice, get really good, then get better!

I guess the first thing is to ask yourself do you really want it? Once employed you will be doing 8 shows a week on a tour with only Sundays off, moving to the next venue every one or two weeks. Home life can become strained and any social life you had is pretty much out of the window. There can be long commutes, late nights driving and the possibility of staying in some dire accommodation if you are not too careful. On the upside, travelling around to different places can be fun and you get to meet a whole new bunch of people touring with you.

You will be playing the same songs every night to the same high standard with no mistakes, for 6 months to a year. This requires a discipline that not all musicians have, especially if you are playing something you might not really like. Doesn’t matter. The producers of the show want it right, all of the time. Not put off yet? Good.

The hardest bit is getting a shoe horn in. You won’t be offered a UK Tour and definitely not a West End chair unless you have worked with others already in there. Most of the people that do this have studied at places like Trinity, Royal Academy, etc and if you have no formal music education you will really struggle unless you have a past history of theatre shows and other paying gigs. If theatre is what you want to do and have not studied formally then look at your regional theatre and see what they have on. Some amateur shows are produced to a very high standard and they always need players. You’ll need to be able to read, have a good knowledge of theory and harmony and a good background in the styles of the tunes in the shows.

So, some bits of advice I’d give out to anyone trying to get on.

Do as many different gigs and shows as you can. Meet other players because there’s always someone who might be looking for what you have to offer.

Practice, get really good, then get better! Practice not until you can play it, but until you can’t play it wrong. Play all types of music, well. Because you will need to.

Be the sort of person you’d want to meet. Chilled, calm, just generally nice and easygoing. No matter how good you are, no one in this biz want’s to work with an arrogant player who puts themselves above other people.

Be prepared to make mistakes. Everyone does, it’s not the end. Learn from them. Don’t beat yourself up but give yourself a good talking to. There are always second chances and you will learn more from some mistakes than a long run of playing things right.

Read the dots but play them as if you just thought of them in a eureka moment! Bring energy and life to the pad.

Do your homework and prep. Learn the tunes but also what’s behind the players driving them. Eg, I did an Elvis show at the Royal Albert Hall for a celebration of his life. We had to learn the song as there were no charts. It became, for me, more of a study of Scotty Moore and James Burton. I spent ages looking at country styles and sounds and absolutely loved it!

Lastly, remember a career in music usually involves a 15-year unpaid apprenticeship. Not my words but from old pros still working. You’ll have the best time though.

Cheers Ed

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