Fri 13 Jan 2023

Greg Last, musical director of The Borrowers

"The arrangements are fever dreams of me based on music that someone else has created using a world that's been presented to me in a script and described to me by a director who has an idea and a vision of what is going to be in total."
  1. At what stage were you brought into the production?

In 2022 Zoe gave me a call and said, ‘What are you doing for Christmas?’ to which I replied, ‘I’m not doing anything currently at Christmas, would you like me to be doing something?’ Zoe then filled me in on the project and how it had been planned as a 2020 production. She then told me all about the history of the show and how it was first performed in Stoke with James Atherton’s original music score.

Zoe then explained what she wanted to achieve and most importantly that she wanted to take it away from having a set band shape, so she didn’t she didn’t want piano and drums and that sort of thing.

  1. How did you go about creating the music for this production?

The original score of this show was written by the musical director James Atherton who was on piano with a strong pit band of about four people, a trumpeter, violinist, a wind player, and any percussion needed. They had a whole band in position doing one thing with a score in front of them and the ability to react to technical problems. They were all lead from James’s Klezmer piano which is beautiful but so totally different from what we’ve done.

All we knew going in to auditions that we did not want piano based but we wanted portable based music, anyone who could take anything anywhere and that keeps the pallet very broad. It had its own set of challenges because the original score was so piano lead. It still needed to have a core line through it, so I pushed for guitar and accordion being obvious potentials.

Katherine Toy (Homily) plays the accordion and Greg said this about her ‘She’s a very specific sort of accordion player, she has an earthy lowdown connection to her instrument that is very hard to find and she’s an amazing player and multifaceted as well.’

  1. What is Klezmer music and why is it used in this production?

Klezmer music is a style of music that has been born out of the Jewish people. It’s a very specific folk music, to our western ears we associate it with Eastern Europe or Balkan states and into the Arab world as well due to the Silk Road. The reason why is the interval distances of the scales that they use. For those who are not musically inclined every single scale starts with a route note which feels like home, whichever key you’re in. The Klezmer scale takes you up a little semitone from it and it makes ‘home’ ever so slightly away from you and crunchy. It’s a type of music born out of necessity, sadness and absolute joy and partying. It’s wonderful to discover and explore that.

  1. Why do you think that James chose this music for the original score?

James has travelled to these environments, he visited Auschwitz and had been to where such desperation and sadness had come. The only way to salve oneself and try and stay alive is to find storytelling through music and do it quietly. So, the sensitivity of the music knows no bounds really and it’s only upon exploring these things that you get the passion for the music. It’s not my personal sort of music but it’s caught me with the stories it can tell, the sadness it can instill but also the expression and freedom which makes it perfect for Arrietty’s journey. She’s caught in one place and then at the end she’s footloose and fancy free, aged 14 and touring the whole entire World.

THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton

  1. How did you go about adapting the music for this production?

I was very much guided by the actors we had. While I’d been on the show and involved with casting, I didn’t get a full package of the music until the last week of August, so it wasn’t until the first week in September that things had started coming through. I didn’t really start getting into the depths of what I wanted to do until the music came in September,  I didn’t really get the sadness as much, although I was very conscious at the end of act one there is a song called a ‘Fragile Friendship’ which leaves a small boy sitting on stage sobbing at the demise of the borrowers and that’s a very specific way of ending and I did have a few nervous moments about that but I decided to just lean into it.

James accompanied the entirety of that piece with a piano building the tension, which is a very Klezmer way of underscoring, but we didn’t have a piano and that would have sounded weird on a guitar and a bit thin on a mandolin. So I decided we would give this to Tony Shim ‘The boy’ and make it just for him like a Cantor at the top of a service and then when the band come in with the march of inevitability, they don’t slow down for him or follow his lead they just play on their own. For me it’s kind of great that is played by the three people that have just smoked them out. It is a very simple chordal structure that lets ‘The Boy’ Tonny, loose himself in this situation and the guilt he must feel and what an adult defining moment his must have been for this young child.

THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton

In the second act there is a definite switch. While the storytelling in the first part is essential to the whole thing it has quite a somber feel by the end, but the second half is a joyous celebration. In the first half you’re inside, you’re stuck, your worried and you constantly trying to protect yourself but by being so defensive you’re living a half-life. You’ve got nice things, there are positives, you’re safe. Then you get outside and you’re living with freedom, with abandon, with less possessions but with more happiness. It’s obvious from Arrietty’s perspective and you hear Homily moan about it but even they start to get used to it and strike a balance, finding a place of peace and serenity and still the outside world for them to enjoy.

That freedom and sense of space in act two allows for bigger instruments and music. The biggest number in act one is ‘Borrowing’ but the instruments are still small and it’s vocally dense, so there’s a tuber, an accordion, and a guitar but the second you get outside you’ve got lots of strings playing and as much trumpety flightiness as possible and the accordion gets broad and long.

THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton

  1. Were you involved in the audition process?

Yes, I was very much a part of the audition process with the casting directors Suki and Lucy, and I had Zoe’s thoughts on big giant spreadsheets and was sending them back-and-forth picking through who Zoe felt looked right and I felt had the musical skills.  All the people that came in could do musically potentially what I was going to be making, so it was really pinning down exactly what I needed. If you look at the cast from the musical perspective you’ve got the family of the borrowers, you’ve got Mrs Driver (Sarah Groarke), Crampfurl (Owen Aaronovitch), a boy (Tonny Shim) and Spiller (John Tate).

John Tate who plays Spiller is fundamentally free to play so he’s locking down the show musically for me and Tonny, in equal measure, on the other side with Mrs Driver and Crampfurl being available for music most of the time.

Knowing who I could have at what point was a big part of the conversation and then it was discussing what instrument they could play.  People need to be able to move around and be engaged in the space and we were very fortunate to find the people that can fit that bill. Musically speaking we’ve got four good guitarists even though we might only use three of them, and Katherine is a fantastic violinist, but we didn’t need that in her role and it’s quite a specific instrument.

Tonny’s a fantastic violinist and he was able to underscore himself when he was playing the cat and went ‘miaow’ to accompany his violin.

We went into September with the show not quite cast because we still needed Spiller, so we did another day of auditions down in London. We very specifically knew we needed a guitarist, who fit with Zoe’s vision of Spiller and someone who could play opposite Courtney, and we found John. John comes to music from an actor’s angle rather than from a musician’s angle which is very helpful.

The music needs to tell the story and doesn’t need to be played from a pit band stand; the character ends up living through the music they play.

A lot of audiences couldn’t spot the difference or be able to comment upon it on leaving but there is a vast difference in the way an actor-muso plays the music versus a pit band. ‘Fragile Friendship’ couldn’t be played a pit band in the same way that it’s played by the 3 actor-musos, the pit band might be more accomplished and accurate, but it would lose the character and energy that those 3 people bring to the piece. No one knows it’s missing until it’s not there.

The cast are all such giving people, Courtney lights up a room with positive energy

  1. What was the thought behind having every actor playing an instrument?

That’s full credit to Zoe who was very clear on ensuring that every single actor appeared on stage playing an instrument immediately. There’s a double bass on stage when you walk into the auditorium, so you know that instruments going to be involved, you don’t know how or why but you know they are there, and we don’t make any apologies for it.  It all fits in with the Klezmer style of music, telling stories and being a part of a community. The sense of belonging is integral to that music. Everyone is there playing, partying, feeling, expressing, listening to each other having that musical conversazione.

  1. Have you had that moment yet, where you see what’s happening on stage and say, yes that’s what I wanted?

Yes, I found myself watching the performance last night with my hands raised and going ‘YES’ because they did something I really wanted. The actors are still very much owning the show and they are starting to take control of it. So as a result, they are still coming to terms with certain things.

Courtney found new ownership over the song ‘Adventure’ yesterday just by adjusting the harmonies slightly which is amazing to see her face light up, it made me so happy.

  1. How have you found working with the Youth Cast?

Zoe, Cydney and myself and anyone else who has had a considerable amount to do with the Youth Cast have all engaged with them as professionals. It’s quite a positive thing for young people to learn, if you are expected to do something, people want to deliver that even when they are of that age. They do still have to be treated as children because they are safeguarding elements to this as well, their safety and protection and learning experience is just as vital as their performance and all that sort of stuff. What I’ve really enjoyed is the fact we have expected them to be a certain standard and they have aimed to deliver that, so fair play to all of them. They are all lovely.

  1. What does it mean to be a Musical Director of a show like The Borrowers?

I suppose if I were to conclude from the musical perspective, a lot of my job with actor-musos is about instilling confidence. The arrangements are fever dreams of me based on music that someone else has created using a world that’s been presented to me in a script and described to me by a director who has an idea and a vision of what is going to be in total. I’ve taken that and gone right this is this is how I think we achieve that; this is how I think we support that story in those characters in those moments. This is your part, good luck!

I remember Owen saying that he was going to have some long, lonely nights with his tuber.

There’s a lot of trust from my end that yes, they’ll get there or asking the actor ‘will you get there?’ at which point they either say yes or no and every time they all said yes, which is great! You then must be able to adjust what you had in your own mind and pick your battles, which things can you let go and which ones do you really want to see happen. I’m kind of negotiating with the company about it and reminding them that they’re brilliant, that they are capable musicians and most importantly I don’t want them to be a musician-musician I want them to be actor-musicians.  I want them to play and connect to the music that they play however they need to connect to the music at that moment.

That’s all been part of very fluid and community-based experience and taking it all the way back to the beginning of brief that’s kind of the point of the Klezmer music. The community feel that can be achieved by the people on the stage and yes of course you’ve got a standard play this at this moment that you need to do this so that can happen. All those sorts of things are happening, and the mathematical element of music still exists but then the real joy is being together, creating music for each other to highlight a moment of their characters.

Courtney and her Cajon – the Cajon is a percussive Latin American instrument, you hear it in a lot of cubo-alto music, R&B. It’s portable and is an easy alternative to a drum kit. Courtney owns the Cajon she plays in the show and Greg was very excited when she auditioned and said she owned one.

The unbelievably exceptional Sarah, she’s an actor-musician that learns instruments on jobs because she’s versatile and has a musical understanding.

THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton

She knows what the responsibility of each instrument tends to be, so she understands if the base is there. She comes to a job going why am I playing this, she asks the same questions of her instrumental playing as she does her text. The double bass is a new thing for her, and I’ve given her one of the most ridiculous 40’s walking baselines. It took her a good couple of weeks, but she got there, and I knew she would because she knows that the ideas, I’ve put in have been thought through and they’re not just whimsy.