Exploring the Music of Propaganda Swing

Posted on 27 June 2014

Capturing the vibrant Jazz scene in 1930s Berlin, Propaganda Swing is the brand new production to be produced by the Belgrade Theatre this September. Inhabiting the same world as Kander & Ebb’s musical Cabaret, Propaganda Swing throws a spotlight on the gripping true story of ‘Charly and His Orchestra’ in Nazi Germany. With music playing an integral role in the show, Musical Supervisor on the show, Hilary Brooks reveals more.

How did you become involved in Propaganda Swing and what first attracted you to the play?
Hamish Glen, the Director, rang me to discuss the play and then sent me a copy of the script. We had worked together on various musical theatre productions at Dundee Rep and on his first two shows at the Belgrade Theatre. I was so impressed by this story, the style of writing, and the song suggestions, that I had to jump on board!

What does the role of a Musical Supervisor involve?
I am responsible for everything to do with the music, in consultation with the Director and the Writer. This includes auditioning actor/musicians, writing the score, arranging the music, rehearsing the actors who are singing, supervising musician band calls and facilitating the actor/musicians and the trio of professional musicians.

Have you been provided with original scores for any music featured in the show and have you had to create new arrangements based upon the size of ensemble you will be working with?
The songs chosen by the writer, Peter Arnott, are all standards from that era and although there are some resources online, I prefer to transcribe from the original recordings, most of which are available on YouTube, and then input the data into a score programme called Sibelius, which ultimately will allow me to build specific arrangements and importantly, transpose the songs into different keys very quickly.

How would you describe the style of music that features in Propaganda Swing?
It’s 1930s Swing. This featured vocal and instrumental soloists with a rhythm section at the core, led by a bandleader out front, often the arranger. Our band template is vaguely modelled on Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five.

How would you describe the relationship between Director and Musical Supervisor and how does this work in the rehearsal room? Is rehearsal time split between Musical Supervisor and Director or is very much a collaborative process?
Each project in theatre has a unique footprint. The relationship is based on a shared vision for the production, usually arrived at collaboratively. This production is a play with music, not a musical, although there are songs in it. Rarely is a Director in rehearsals when songs are initially being routined, as a one to one approach in a quiet space achieves solid learning. After that, the interpretation of the song within the scene is rehearsed in by both Director and Musical Supervisor, on the floor.

What, in your opinion, are the particular challenges of arranging jazz music?
The challenge for the Musical Supervisor is to bring out the best in all the artistes involved and specifically to conjure up a band ensemble appropriate to the period. For Propaganda Swing there will be a mixture of professional musicians and actor musicians. A piano, bass and drums trio will be the driving force for each cue with various lead instruments added where appropriate. Some cues are instrumental versions and some will be led by the vocalists. Luckily for the Belgrade Theatre, we have found some wonderful players and actor/singers who will bring their unique talents to the rehearsals. Also, improvisation will probably have to be limited to within the rhythm section, as it is a collaborative medium linked with direction, design and lighting, so there is little chance to go completely off-score.

As a pianist, do you find it challenging to write for other instruments and are you required to have a good level of knowledge about each musical instrument that you arrange music for?
Yes and yes! From an early age I was curious about how instruments worked, playing many different ones through my school years and student days – some more successfully than others! Acquiring that knowledge stood me in good stead when I began arranging music in the 80s. You never stop learning and with each job I was offered had a different line-up. By discussing problem areas with musicians and listening, listening, listening, one hones one’s craft. An early bible for me was Arranged by Nelson Riddle – The Definitive Study Of Arranging.

What are challenges of arranging for actor/musicians? What are the key differences between working with musicians and actor musicians?
Understanding the actor’s musical strengths and weaknesses is key. Often, less is more and arrangements need to reflect their strengths. Extra time in rehearsals is required to build a confidence for performance, appropriate to the given acting role. With musicians there is a shorthand in place; expectation of technique, versatility and knowledge is assumed. Band rehearsals are usually tightly scheduled and efficiently run.

Will the cast have experience of performing this particular style of music?
Most of the actor/musicians in this production have experience of playing in ensembles, as discussed at the audition stage. The musical style of 1930s jazz would be a challenge for any musician or actor/musician with no experience of the genre, so a crash course in listening to music of the period and appropriate techniques will be an essential part of the process for all involved.

Propaganda Swing runs on the Belgrade’s Main Stage from Sat 13 – Sat 27 September. Tickets are available now from just £9 by calling our friendly Box Office team on 024 7655 3055 or book online for cheaper tickets.