Unsung heroes make magic happen

05:37, Jul 07 2014
Mamma Mia
backing vocalists, back from left, Alister Gray, Lyndal Ludlow, Bernie Tamati, Gerard McSoriley, Ilana Edlin, Barrie Sheehy; front from left, ON SONG: "Mamma Mia!" backing vocalists Martha McSoriley, Jolene Kynan-Wilde, Kathryn Blomfield, Ruth McSoriley, Michelle Walker, Aroha Winter, at the Invercargill Musical Theatre rehearsal room.

Mamma Mia!, delivering the fabulous music of ABBA, will open at the Civic Theatre next month. Each week we go backstage with Invercargill Musical Theatre to gain a rare insight into what it takes to produce a show of this calibre.

The unsung heroes. Every organisation has them.

I had a browse through the programme of last year's production, Grease. For every person on stage there were three off stage, either backstage or in some form of supporting role.

Mamma Mia
REHEARSAL: "Mamma Mia!" musical director Michael Buick leads from the keyboard.

We touched on the mammoth job that wardrobe plays last week, but the list is really endless. It is generally the wee things that go unnoticed. For example, all the props for Mamma Mia! are supplied with the set. That's good, job done.

Well, no.

The consortium rules state that you are not allowed to rehearse with any of the props until you are in theatre. It is a fair enough ruling designed to keep the props in good condition for all the consortium partners.


So to assist the cast with rehearsals, our properties manager Jan Brown has been out scavenging a duplicate set of props for the cast to rehearse with, all 237 of them.

We have just completed the pack-in schedule for the Civic Theatre and estimated the number of people required to do the job. Before any cast is able to walk on the stage to rehearse in the Civic Theatre, the technical crew alone will have put in some 822 hours of work.

The production management is charged to the Invercargill Musical Theatre management committee. Organising budgets, funding, the rights holder, consortium, theatre and all production personnel contracts, marketing, auditions, cast management, social activities, sponsors and programme, plus numerous other jobs, are all competently handled by this small, invisible group.

The limelight, of course, is shared by all those on stage. The leads will get the accolades they deserve as they are the characters that we will get to know and love. Supporting them will be the onstage ensemble.

Mamma Mia! is a high-energy show with a lot of movement, so these guys have been selected because they can dance. The ability to sing is secondary but if they can do a bit of both, even better. They will share some of the glory as they too will be engaged on stage, even though their role is still secondary to the leads. Both these groups conform to the director's "look" for Mamma Mia!

Age, gender and body shape all become important factors in their casting.

There is, however, another very important group of performers who are there to provide support for both these groups and the accolades they get will be minimal. They will be onstage, but they will reside faceless behind a dense black curtain and that is where they shall remain. Unseen but definitely heard. The unsung heroes of the stage are the backing vocalists. There are 14 in total and with all due respect they are an odd- looking bunch because they conform to nothing.

They have been selected solely on their ability to sing, therefore there are old, young, male, female, short, tall, thin and not so thin. It is fantastic that these shows provide opportunities for such a diverse range of our local community to be involved.

Backing vocalist Ilana Edlin is a young mother of three and loving the opportunity to get out for a good sing.

"All our rehearsals so far have been with the full company so we are really enjoying it and feel part of the team," she says.

"I can't do what the onstage cast do, but I'm still getting my own buzz from the songs, harmonies and the amazing sound.

"Last Sunday the onstage cast did their movement to the songs so it was the first time the BVs were separated from the group.

"It was great to actually hear the contribution we're making to the music. When I left rehearsal I thought, s..., we just made that sound and it was awesome."

And then there is Michael Buick, musical director. He gets lots of accolades, he gets his photo in the programme and all that - so what?

Director Stephen Robertson arrived in Invercargill on May 7 with a mission to get all the choreography set quickly as he had to leave Invercargill on May 24 to work on another show in Christchurch, Blood Brothers. He is to return to Invercargill on July 6 to put the final touches on Mamma Mia! and get it to theatre.

While Stephen was working through that intense three-week period, Michael was there at the rehearsals, providing all the music on piano.

Through Stephen's break, Michael now has the opportunity to teach the cast the songs, break down all the harmonies and start preparing the orchestra.

There are no backing tracks for these shows, so at every rehearsal Michael is not only teaching and organising harmonies, but also is providing the music by piano. The ideal situation is to have a rehearsal pianist so Michael can give his full attention to the cast vocals. However, in today's world, that is a chore that no-one wants. Every rehearsal there he is, banging on those ivories, teaching, with no assistance.

Michael's workload is staggering yet what pulls him through it night after night is the fact that this show is just downright exciting.

"The cast are really receptive to what is going on," Michael says. "All feel part of the company, are working well together and picking up things quickly and retaining it.

"Vocally we make small changes, the way they cut off a word or how long they hold it and it is making such a huge difference. They just get it, so it seems like we are making really fast progress and locking things in. I just go home buzzing because it sounds so good.

"The talent we have down here is enormous and we are so lucky to have all our leads living in our community. With them attending all the rehearsals it just creates a real buzz. The BVs alone are incredible musicians and are making a huge contribution to the show. They go away from rehearsal, do their homework and come back and it's just wow!

"This show is non-stop hit after hit with every song having a hook. Even though there is dialogue in the show you never get the sense the party has stopped.

"Some shows you work on you get to a point where you get sick of the music. It just isn't possible with this music and I especially look forward to merging the band and the vocals. I have said it before, this show is just going to be one heck of a party!"

Neale Smith is technical director for the Mamma Mia! show.

* Mamma Mia! is presented by Invercargill Musical Theatre at the Civic Theatre, August 6-16. Tickets on sale now at TicketDirect, ICC Booking Office, Esk St, Invercargill.

The Southland Times