Interview with Ragtime's orchestrator and musical supervisor Mark Aspinall

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' epic 1997 musical Ragtime is one of the most loved shows in both the UK and USA. The score alone, which won the Tony Award in 1998, is regarded by many as being one of the finest examples of modern musical theatre, with its sweeping melodies, rousing harmonies and powerful message.

Director Thom Southerland, who has a proven track record of staging great re-imaginings in little rooms, tackles the production in his inaugural season at the Charing Cross Theatre featuring a cast of 22 talented actor-musician performers. Reducing the cast and ensemble to a core number of quadruple threat performers will certainly offer a unique perspective on the musical which has already enjoyed numerous runs in the commercial West End and London fringe.

Actor-musician productions break the wall between cast and orchestra, combining the two forms of music, the vocals and the accompaniment to create a highly impressive visual and audio performance. The success of this method comes from the skill of the musical director and orchestrator who have the task of juggling multiple aspects of the production.

“I've never felt more like I've actually contributed to the creative fabric of the show” says orchestrator and musical supervisor Mark Aspinall as we talk in between a run of the production at the Charing Cross Theatre. “So often as the musical director you feel like the policeman in the room, telling people things are wrong or out of tune. This has been really special because you're actually really contributing to the creative fabric. You're actually helping people to interpret a piece from the ground up – working so closely with the creative team to really create a new vision for a piece of art and that's really thrilling.”

Cast of Ragtime in rehearsal
(Photo Annabel Vere)

Aspinall is a remarkable musician who is frequently referred to by his colleague Thom as a “genius”. Having worked together on the internationally successful revival of Titanic, which similarly reduced the vast orchestra down to just six people, Ragtime provides one of their biggest challenges to date.

“What attracted me was the sheer quality of the music and the piece, it really is first rate” explains Mark. “We're really lucky to be doing it and also giving it a fresh look and a new treatment. I feel so immensely lucky that this opportunity has come around that Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have given us free reign to re-imagine the piece under Thom's leadership, and that's fantastic.”

Director John Doyle became heavily associated with actor-musician musical theatre revivals thanks to his productions of Sweeney Todd and Company on Broadway, and in the UK the form has been repeated at theatres across the country. The demand for quadruple threat performers is such that many top drama schools now offer specific courses for students to train specifically as an actor-musician, in order to provide the industry with top-level skilled performers who are capable of juggling a variety of disciplines.

“I came on board because it was actor-musician” explains Mark. “It's something I've always been interested in, for one reason or another my career hasn't gone that way until now. It's a terrifying prospect to be here in London doing it, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t let slide.”

Whilst it's certainly fair to say that the concept works better with some musicals than it does with others, Mark is confident that as a musical, Ragtime justifies this fresh approach.

“I think the concept of making Ragtime an actor-musician show is inherently brilliant because it is a piece that is about music, it has music at the heart of the show so it feels not a waywood leap to involve musicians. Having been in a rehearsal room I genuinely can't imagine it any other way.”

Ragtime in rehearsal
(Photo Annabel Vere)

In approaching the idea I wondered, like many people do, where on earth does one begin in orchestrating, teaching and realising a production of this kind. Whereas the usual process is to teach the cast the vocals and the band or orchestra the music, bringing them together only for a sitzprobe at the very end of the rehearsal process, juggling both of these responsibilities seems like a daunting task.

“I've done such a lot of work of my own to make sure I understand the styles that the piece plays on, pastiches and emulates, but I realised that I just wanted I needed to crack on and get pen to paper” Mark explains. “It was through doing that that I began to really understand the piece as a whole and understand the challenges that it presents to the orchestrator.”

Composer Stephen Flaherty is much revered for his incredible work on stage and screen I ask Mark if he had spoken to him before starting the process of adapting the score. “I have been nervous about doing so” he explains. “I have so much respect for his work, I sort of didn't want to appear uninformed to him. That is one of the the hardest things to do, trying to put what has gone before to one side and think of a new way of telling this story and telling this musically. I took as inspiration the wonderful work that Ian Weinberger did on Titanic, the show me and Thom worked on previously. We both felt that one of the strengths of that orchestration which had again been brought down from an orchestra of vast size to just six was that it stripped away some of the Broadway grandeur and allowed us to focus more on the content of the story and the characters and what the piece is actually saying.”

Anyone who enjoyed Titanic at either the Southwark Playhouse or The Charing Cross Theatre would certainly attest to the fact that the sound created was extraordinary, regardless of the size of the orchestra, and that's a method that the team is quick to employ again.

Cast of Ragtime in rehearsal
(Photo Annabel Vere)

“One of the things you do is rely on the sheer fire-power of the voices on stage and that's something we have the luxury of doing again in Ragtime, we have a cast of sensational singers,” Mark explains. “So with that as one of the major powerhouses of the music, then you can look to the rest of the instruments that you have available to provide support to that. In terms of thinking which instruments we'd bring in, because Ragtime music itself was written almost entirely for piano that had to be a central focus for the musical language of the show. In our production we have two pianos either played together or apart. Four hands on two pianos is a great sound – it's the most expressive instrument, the tone colours you can get out of it are vast and varied so they sort of provide the backbone if you like and we have a range of other instruments as well to provide colour and also evoke the musical output of the cultures that are presented in the piece.”

The process certainly sounds like a difficult jigsaw to piece together, and I can only imagine how demanding the casting process becomes when you're not only looking for a cast who can perform the score with their voices, but also bring an extra talent to the stage that offers musical variety across the entire ensemble. In a chicken-and-egg scenario, I wondered which part of the process came first.

Mark Aspinall
(Photo Annabel Vere)

“I knew I wanted certain colours in the ensemble, I needed a banjo, an accordion, of course I needed the pianists, other than that we saw what came into the room really” Mark replies. “The first round was really open and we just saw what kind of sound came into the room, then it became part of putting the jigsaw together. What we've ended up with is an ensemble of people who can do everything – it blows my mind. Every day I'm just so impressed by what these guys manage to do – to retain two and a half hours of music in their heads and to act, to sing and to dance – it's just overwhelming.”

Whilst Mark won't conduct the show he has certainly spent a significant amount of time in rehearsal ensuring the cast are comfortable with all of the music before any form of staging could take place.

“The first thing we did was to learn the vocal material, then we worked through with the instrumentalists to make sure it sounded exactly how we wanted it” he says. “After a week and a half the cast had learned the entire show, and then we started staging and working from the beginning.”

Cast of Ragtime in rehearsal
(Photo Annabel Vere)

Each time Ragtime is revived it seems to speak so clearly to a particular moment in history that heightens the show's message and the underlying narrative of E.L Doctorow's original text. The relevance of the show in a contemporary context is certainly not lost on Mark or members of the cast and creative team.

“I think it's a really timely and important message that Ragtime gets across” he states. “The fusion and inclusion of people from all walks of life – also the marginalisation of those groups, it's such a hot topic today not just in this country but across America. There's a strong contemporary message to take away from the piece, you would hope that people look at a piece set in the 1900s that we've moved on, but sadly that's not the case. We still suffer marginalisation and oppression just on account of being wherever we happen to be from.”

The power of the show, particularly Flaherty and Ahrens' incredible score makes Ragtime an overwhelming piece of theatre that really has the ability to move an audience.

“You are not going to come across a show in London this year in which you are so blown away by the ability of the performers on stage” Mark states. “To see 22 people playings, singing, acting, moving on stage and playing such a rousing and evocative score is second to none. You'll feel like you're closer than anyone has ever been to the heart of the piece.”

Ragtime runs at the Charing Cross Theatre from Saturday 8 October to 10 December 2016.

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