- Actor-Musicianship by Jeremy Harrison
Whether the odd lute or drum in Shakespeare, Doody with his guitar in Grease, or the eponymous Fiddler on the Roof, the ability to play an instrument is frequently a concern for casting directors throughout the world. What has changed since the late twentieth century, however, is the advent of the actor-musician as a new specialized kind of performer. Triple threats have been around for generations, but the actor who can sing, dance, and play an instrument at a professional level as part of their character is something entirely new and has during the last thirty years risen to a high profile of prominence in the United Kingdom and now the United States. Author Jeremy Harrison is a veteran of the actor-musician movement and company member in the watershed actor-musician production of Sweeny Todd at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, England, directed by fellow actor-musician John Doyle. In his book Actor-Musicianship, Harrison provides a much-needed text to serve the rapidly growing need for the training of these kinds of performers.
The text is divided into roughly one-third a history of the actor-musician movement and two-thirds a course in actor-musician theory and practice, making the book a timely reference for performers, directors, and historians alike. First, Harrison takes the reader on a time-traveling tour of notable evolutionary moments in the actor-musician theatre. Starting with the Bubble Theatre and its productions of From a Jack to a King and Return to the Forbidden Planet— actor-musician adaptations of Macbeth and The Tempest respectively—the text underlines the significant differences between audience reactions to traditional theatre and actor-musician productions. Harrison then discusses the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, famous for its role in actor-musician productions in the past, as well as its annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantomimes today. He continues his narrative with the ever-increasing frequency and innovation in British actor-musician productions in biopic actor-musician jukebox musicals like Buddy, and concludes with the transfer of Sweeny from the Watermill, to Trafalgar Studios, to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, for which it received a Tony Award. Throughout his discussion of the development of the actor-musician production with its revelatory creativity and sold-out-crowd buzz, Harrison reminds the reader that these productions were often born out of financial need, since the actors doubled as musicians.
After this brief though entrancing history of the development of the actor-musician phenomenon as a primarily British innovation, the book continues into a chapter on theory. In “Jack and Master,” Harrison discusses the duality of the actor-musician being like a “personality disorder” (41). Actor-musician productions tend to make use of less “high art” instruments and instead rely upon guitars and drums more than orchestral instruments. Actor-musicians face numerous problems within the duality of being completely actor and completely musician, such as playing with proper technique and expression while maintaining character and dramatic context, the relative difficulty [End Page 189] changing with each instrument. This section expands beyond these challenges of identity and outlines the praxes used by actor-musicians in relationship to the audience and the text. Harrison states that since the actor and audience are in a semi-contractual relationship with certain conditioned responses, the audience accepts the conventions of a given performance, including that of the actor-musician (48).
As Harrison further outlines theory, he touches on: instruments as representational objects or even characters; music rehearsals as character exploration; the dual and triple roles of actor, musician, and arranger or musical supervisor; ensemble acting; and more. He includes context for the drastic differences between the actor-musician scene in the United States versus the United Kingdom, and suggests that the phenomenon in Britain is more than simply actors adding a specialized skill to their resumes, but instead that the actor-musician is a new kind of performer.
In his discussion of training methodology, Harrison includes a large collection of exercises that put the theory and method into practice for students and...