Recently, first-year Music Performance Scholar, Hannah Ost, had the opportunity to work as Music Assistant to Andrew Lippa at the Royal Festival Hall; here, she reflects on the hectic pace of life, the need for the right shoes, and working on The Little Princess…
A few months ago, I saw an email advertising open auditions for Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley’s musical A Little Princess. The auditions were for the main child leads and, needless to say, I was a little bit too old to go! However, there was contact information listed, so I decided to send an email to express my interest in the show and offer my assistance in any way possible. To my great surprise, I received an email back from the executive directors of the show, who had forwarded my email to Andrew’s full-time assistant. There were a couple of emails back and forth between us and about a week later I found myself sitting in my study, on a Skype call with Mr. Andrew Lippa himself (mildly freaking out, as he is my all-time favourite composer, but managing to keep calm and composed… if you’ll pardon the pun!) He talked to me about the possibility of my being his assistant; we went through the role, his expectations of me and what I should expect on rehearsal days.
So it came to be that on Friday lunchtime (25th June), I found myself carrying a chicken salad and diet coke to the Southbank Centre, to give to Mr Lippa, in a rehearsal for his musical, ‘A Little Princess’. I made notes during the Sitzprobe and formatted them to send in the evening. I got to listen to incredible singers, and musicians (from the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra) perform incredible music, being conducted by the incredible man who wrote it. We had dinner together and we talked a bit about me and my background, and also about his work and his life. He gave me some tips on making it in the industry, how to conduct a cast and orchestra and how the process of composing a full-length musical begins. It was a little surreal, considering Lippa’s music has been some of my favourites for years!
But Friday was nothing in comparison to the crazy day I had on Monday 28th…
9am – I arrived at Andrew’s hotel room, ready to head to the theatre. Helped him with his bags, got in a car and went through the Artist’s Door to the Royal Festival Hall at about 9:30.
10:30am – Technical rehearsal. I sat in the 2nd Violinist’s chair onstage and looked out at the 2,900 soon-to-be-filled seats, down at the performers, then back at Andrew, who was conducting the pianist and actors. Once again, surreal.
2:30pm – Dress rehearsal! I sat in the middle of the front row and watched the full thing. It was a fantastic opportunity and if anybody went to see the performance, you’ll know just how talented that cast was.
5pm – At roughly 5pm, we broke for dinner and Andrew went to get prepared for the show. All’s going well until I realise the showbiz after party is tonight and I’m going to be there. I look down at my £6 Primark plimsoles… I need shoes.
6pm – With an hour ’til house opens and Andrew getting ready in his dressing room, I walk 15 minutes to the Strand and frantically run around trying to find a cheap size 5 pair of heels. After spending 15 more minutes in a Next, I decide on a pair that fits and hurry back to the theatre.
6:55pm (5 minutes before house opens): I wait for the slowest lift in the world to come to my floor, shoot up to the stage and check everything is how it should be: Baton in place, scores organised, water bottles in position. I race back to the dressing room and get there on the dot of 7pm. Showbiz life: nailed.
7:25: Act One beginners call! I take my place in the stage right wing and page the curtain for Andrew, as he enters at 7:30, to begin the show…
From here, my job was essentially finished for a couple of hours. Besides paging the curtain, I was free to watch the show on the monitors and listen to the roar of the crowd after every number. I became a bit like a backstage helper, helping cast members find props, bringing cups of water to nervous performers, drawing the curtains after an exit/entrance. It was wonderful to see the smiles on the kids’ faces especially – when they came off stage after a big number!
At roughly 10:30, after packing up Andrew’s music, I joined him at the after-show party, where I was introduced to performers, press and agents alike. I shook hands with so many people I couldn’t even begin to count and exchanged details with a few too! Being in the presence of so many experienced industry professionals was amazing and I was happy to listen to them talk about their experiences working in musical theatre, television, film; I even spoke to some musical directors which made my heart leap just a little bit!
After that, myself and his full-time assistant, Matt Webster, got Andrew into a car back to his hotel, rejoined and stayed at the party ’til it ended at 11pm. I got the train home, albeit a little too tipsy for my own good, and hit the hay for a needed sleep.
So what does all of this mean for me?
Well, as someone whose life goal is to be a West End Musical Director, these two days gave me the opportunity to see how professional theatre comes together. I’ve worked in ‘Am-Dram’, but this was very different to that in a lot of ways. The main difference is the amount of people it takes to make a show. In the world of youth theatre schools, a sound 15 people will make up the backstage team. In professional theatre, there were at least that many people on the stage at any given moment, with another 30 backstage at least! You realise everybody has their own very specific job, which is of the utmost importance to them, but which others do not realise is happening. It is always non-stop and I barely sat down for two days… but that’s the exciting thing. There was always something to observe. I observed how to conduct an orchestra, two choirs and a full cast simultaneously. I observed how hierarchy works in the business. I observed how and how not to behave in the working world and it’s given me a brilliant new outlook to apply to my own endeavours at University.
A lot of life lessons were learned in a very short space of time, but I am honoured to have worked for my favourite composer, on a fantastic production at the Royal Festival Hall. One of the best experiences of my life so far, for sure!