The power of the music of the night

“POOR old Andrew Lloyd Webber,” Ian McLean says sympathetically of the famous English composer.

“His music has been criticised for being simplistic, but it’s not, and he’s been accused of being a musical plagiarist, but he’s not.

“I think they’re jealous because he’s been so successful.”

Musical director Ian McLean... “Singers don’t have music in front of them – anything can happen, a late entry, or they may jump a bar.”

Musical director Ian McLean… “Singers don’t have music in front of them – anything can happen, a late entry, or they may jump a bar.”

McLean has a fair idea what he’s talking about. He’s the conductor and musical director for Free Rain Theatre’s coming lavish production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” the musical that’s almost an opera.

“Lloyd Webber’s really very clever,” he goes on. “Look at ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’ in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ the tune and the rhythm are very inventive.”

McLean has one of the toughest jobs on “The Phantom” in ensuring the overall musical sound is perfect.

It’s probably the biggest thing he’s done since making his stage conducting debut in “Annie” for Canberra Philharmonic in 1991. From that time, he’s been at it non-stop, although he’s also found time by day to direct the Royal Military College Band, oversee all the Army bands in Australia and to manage the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s just a little short of 30 musicals,” he says, counting fast.

In every case, part of his job was to source the musicians, generally from the CSO, the in-recess Canberra Pops Orchestra and the RMC Band – “The number of scratch orchestras I’ve put together? I wouldn’t hazard a guess.”

For “The Phantom”, he’s pulled together a fully professional orchestra which he both conducts and directs. Recently, on his own request, he has preferred to leave the vocal side to Leisa Keen, his repetiteur and assistant musical director.

“Singers are too far advanced for me, I’m an instrumental musician, not a vocal one.”

McLean is probably being too modest. When he first started out, he reports being “petrified in the days leading up to opening night”. His old mentor and predecessor at the RMC Band, Colin Fischer, advised him to just relax and concentrate on where the singers come in.

“Singers don’t have music in front of them – anything can happen, a late entry, or they may jump a bar.”

No wonder he was scared.

By trial and error, McLean came up with a set of signals to overcome these more unpredictable aspects of conducting musicals.

“If my hand signals like a kangaroo hopping, that means ‘jump forward’, or if I give the sign of putting the brakes on, go back.”

Conducting a cast of mixed professionalism is slightly tricky, but he happily takes advice from Michael Cormick and Julie Lea Goodwin, the professionals playing the Phantom and Christine, and consults with the more experienced singers and the director David Harmon, who he describes as “a very clever young man”.

But, he says, “with the chorus I’m more dictatorial, I say, ‘we’re going to do it this way’.”

“The Phantom of the Opera”, Canberra Theatre, August 9-22, bookings to 6275 2700 or

Main photo: The Phantom and his Christine, Michael Cormick and Julie Lea Goodwin. Photo by Brent McDonald

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