Wednesday , October 28 2020
Photo of cast in 'Girl from the North Country'
Rachel John (Mrs Neilsen) and cast in 'Girl from the North Country' (Credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann)

Interview: Musical Director Tarek Merchant on Coronavirus, UK Theatre, and ‘Girl from the North Country’ [Part 2 of 2]

Continued from Part 1

Tarek Merchant is a musical director (MD), actor-musician, and composer in London. He shed some light about the uncertainty in the theatre industry brought on by the coronavirus or COVID-19 crisis during Part 1 of our interview. In this final part, he and I dive a little deeper into his work, including the West End revival of Girl from the North Country. Set in the Depression in Minnesota, the musical featured excellent Bob Dylan songs and completed a successful run in London at the end of 2019. Unfortunately, the Broadway run that launched earlier this year closed its doors, though it is expected to return when Broadway theaters reopen.

I notice you’ve also done radio work. Is it easier or harder when you compose for radio? 

Oh, that’s an interesting point! This speaks more about me or my personality, but maybe the thing I found hardest about those jobs is that they are a bit more solitary. The hands-on approach that comes with working with a band, singers, actor-musicians has a kind of dialogue about the music making. In radio after you render the music, maybe there’s less dialogue about it. Maybe there’s more of a deadline or a need to deliver. In theatre, there is more give and take or wiggle room. 

Having said that, I would like to do more radio. In the current climate, I feel that would be a fascinating way to try and explore music making. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this – I’ve never written for film and TV but I understand it can be true of those realms: which is that the people who are making those sort of want you to come up with the right thing. They want your demo as a sort of finished piece. Whereas in theatre you can say, “This is where we are right now in the process.”

As a follow-up to that: Have you ever changed your music based on what you saw during preview nights from the audiences?

Oh, massively so, particularly if it’s a new work! With it in front of the audience, it might be the first time you get the feeling [that] the momentum of the show carries them along or you realize they lost us. Sometimes you see everyone was dying to applaud that number, but we don’t have a button at the end of it. It just segues to the next scene! We need a button for that cathartic applause.

I’ve been on shows where you find out it’s the wrong song or the second act’s opening didn’t work at all. You can take something you cut from rehearsal and reinstate it for the next preview. Previews are vital for having a transition period between the closed experiment of the rehearsal room and the “finished product” of a show. 

Photo of David Ganly, Steffan Harri, and Finbar Lynch in Girl from the North Country
David Ganly (Mr Burke), Steffan Harri (Elias Burke), and Finbar Lynch (Reverend Marlowe) in ‘Girl from the North Country’ (Credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann)

Is there an average amount of time you get for composition assignments? 

It varies, depending on what point of the process you’re engaged [in]. I’m an associate artist at the Watermill Theatre, a small theatre in Newbury. They use a lot of actor-musicians. I write a lot of Christmas shows for them. The last one was a version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. At the stage [when] they were deciding which title to use for Christmas, I was engaged in conversations then as a composer. I was even onboard at a point when the director was considering different titles. Other times, it can be short notice when someone has pulled out of a project and they suddenly need someone to step in. Rehearsals may have already started when you’re called! The longest is probably a year. The shortest has been a matter of days. 

Were you on both the New York and the London productions of Girl from the North Country

It was just the West End revival. My colleague Ian Ross did the Toronto version in September-October last year, but he couldn’t do the West End run here. I was MD for it. Simultaneously to that production, they were working with a different cast and band for the Broadway version. It had many of the same creative team: Conor McPherson as director, Simon Hale as musical supervisor, Lucy Hind as movement director, and Simon Baker as sound designer. 

The band in the West End revival was the same one that did the original West End production two years ago. I was the newbie. It was quite a steep learning curve for me, stepping up to MD a band that knew the show better than I did. 

How do you put your own spin on a revival?

The cast was the same from Toronto that [had] just wrapped up, so they had a version of the show in their bodies and their blood. The band had not done the Toronto version, so they had their own take on it. Then I came in fresh. The thing for me which was always a hot potato was tempo. Over the course of a run and consecutive productions, there have been different types of decisions made. Katie Brayben did a different performance than Shirley Henderson in the original run, so their tempi would be slightly different. Being sensitive and attuned to what the performers were wanting in terms of tempo is a tightrope to walk. 

Simon Hale’s gorgeous arrangements have quite a lot of space in them for different players to apply a little bit of their own style and feel to those arrangements. When we were doing the West End run, Ian from the Toronto run came and played a show so that I could do a show watch. It was really fascinating to hear how he would play the show differently than I would, even though we were both playing the same score. In that sense, I felt inevitably the personality of the individual players and musicians blend and came through within the space of the arrangements. Knowing where to push and pull on a vocal with a cast member or drive a number with the band are all things that I needed to feel out on an ongoing learning curve. 

Photo of Sidney Kean and Donald Sage Mackay in Girl from the North Country
Sidney Kean (Mr. Perry) and Donald Sage Mackay (Nick Laine) in ‘Girl from the North Country’ (Credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann)

The other thing with music is that it’s temporal. It exists as parts handed out to the cast. It exists in an original cast recording. But really it exists only in the moment you play it live in a performance. There really is no “bible” or definitive version of it. Some MDs rightly pride themselves on their show being identical every single night. Girl from the North Country is not that kind of show. It’s not a glossy machine. It’s heartfelt. You’re sort of going with people’s heartbeats and riding out the emotional contours in the journey of the play every night afresh like the actors. I felt right making judgement calls on a night-to-night basis. One wants to aim for a certain parameter, but you also want it to be organic each night. The score breathes night after night in a way that isn’t necessarily true of every musical. 

Are you a longtime Bob Dylan fan? 

It’s embarrassing. I’m not! (laughs) I saw the show during the original West End run. I loved it. It felt like it was the first time I’d heard some of those songs because – obviously Bob Dylan is a musical genius, I’m not disputing that. I think in his vocals, you don’t always hear the contours of the melodies and some of the shapes Simon Hale and the cast were able to bring out. When you hear the vocal harmonies being built up in the company work, I feel like you hear the songs with textures and melodies afresh that you didn’t get from a Bob Dylan recording.

Apart of a few of the really famous numbers, I was probably more familiar with the original version of Girl from the North Country than I was in having heard the original Bob Dylan recordings. It is the sad truth. [laughs]

Do you have a favorite character from the show? Everyone in the ensemble struck me as strong players.

I think that’s true. The fabric of that piece is absolutely a tapestry of all these characters and personalities interacting. It doesn’t have a conventional structure of platforming a particular lead in the way other musicals might.

A favorite character? That’s really tricky! I think it sounds awful but I always wanted to paint the pain of it: the character who was suffering at the moment was the one I felt most drawn to – even a character who may not be most sympathetic like Gene (Colin Bates), the son who might be an alcoholic. [There’s a] scene with him and his former girlfriend, Catherine (Gemma Sutton), where they can’t ever seem to say what you would have wanted them to say. It’s in the silences, the gaps, and sentences crumbling away. That’s the tip of the iceberg of the loss, nostalgia, and missed opportunity! You feel a little bit of catharsis in the song because you hear what was in their hearts. 

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Virginia on a full scholarship. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Simon Callow, Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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