Hannah Nepil interviews singer Graham Bickley in the run-up to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performances of two Bernstein concerts: on Saturday 8th June at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, and Tuesday 11th June at Cadogan Hall, London.
In an extravagant tribute to one of our most fondly remembered musical icons, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is to devote two concerts to the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. For the performers – who will present excerpts from Bernstein’s musical theatre works including Candide, On the Town, Wonderful Town and Trouble in Tahiti – it’s a chance to demonstrate exactly what makes this composer so great. ‘The lyrics are fab, the tunes wonderful and the orchestration always so interesting: it really helps to support us singers,’ says one of the performers Graham Bickley.
On a technical level, Bickley admits, Bernstein is ‘tricky stuff. You really have to be on it, no matter how many times you do it.’ What’s more, performing miscellaneous musical snippets in a concert setting presents certain challenges: ‘to get into every character in every song is a tough call because you only have two minutes in a particular song to get that across and then you’re into another character from another show.’ But then, as he says, ‘it’s a compromise: what you lose out on in terms of the storytelling because of the very nature of concerts, you get back in hearing this orchestra which is much bigger than the original pit orchestra. The audience enjoys it for different reasons to those they would if they were watching it within a musical theatre context.’
Luckily, in Bernstein’s shows much of the storyline and drama is conveyed through the music. And that, according to Bickley, is exactly what good musical theatre should be like. ‘I’ve sat through many a performance where it seemed like all the performer was thinking about was “I’m going to get through this scene and then I’m going to hit a top G”. That’s boring’.
Musical theatre, says Bickley, gets a bad press: ‘It’s not seen as the skill it should be.’ And celebrity culture doesn’t help: ‘we do have those who have been through The X Factor and have had a bit of celebrity thrown upon them and they think “I’ll do musical theatre now because that’s easy”.’ But, as he points out, it’s not. ‘You can’t put a song across without acting it – as an opera singer would also say. From the beginning of the show to the end some of it is sung, some of it is without music, but it should be acted all the way through.’
Bickley should know: he’s a veteran of music theatre having ‘been in the game for the last 25 to 30 years.’ As a child he was surrounded by music. His father was a choir master and ran the local amateur operatic society, his sister is an opera singer and his family always had music in the house. ‘From day one I knew what I wanted to do. And I’ve been able to maintain that dream up until the heavy age that I am today,’ he says with a laugh, ‘just don’t ask what that is.’