Interview: Freddie Tapner, London Musical Theatre Orchestra

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra exploded onto the West End stage last year with their five-star concert performances of State Fair and A Christmas Carol. This Sunday, they’re launching their 2017 season at the London Palladium with Jason Robert Brown’s Honeymoon in Vegas, starring Maxwell Caulfield, Samantha Barks and Arthur Darvill. And to think all this began with a simple Facebook post…

“It was mid-May 2015, and I was playing through the piano score to Phantom of the Opera, when I realised that it would be considerably more fun to play it through with a full orchestra,” explains LMTO founder and Musical Director, Freddie Tapner. “I posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to join me and make it happen, and 24 hours later I had 250 people signed up. I honestly thought I might find 25 – to find 250 keen people in such a short space of time was amazing.

“I never in a million years expected to be where we are now – the success of the orchestra has taken us all by surprise. It’s not to say it has happened by accident; we’re lucky to have an astonishing team of people driving this machine who work tirelessly to create the magic on stage. Shaun Kerrison, our regular Director, happened upon us by chance and is now one of our closest allies. Mike Robertson, an Olivier Award winning lighting designer, is a joy to work with and produces show stopping moments I wouldn’t even know how to describe, let alone create from nothing. Avgoustos Psillas and Nick Lidster from the Autograph sound team make LMTO concerts sound glorious, epic and truly orchestral – and that, after all, is what it’s all about. We’re riding a wave of luck and I don’t want to get off!

“The only expectation I have ever had from LMTO is that it would always be fun. We have moved in the direction which allows us as an organisation to create the most enjoyable concerts possible, for our audience, yes, but also our players and performers. Without fun on stage, concerts can be terribly boring.”

Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

The last two years have brought several highlights for Freddie. “Personal highlights for me will always be about people. Meeting and working with these amazing artists is something we all dream of doing, and I’m lucky enough to do it every day in rehearsals. The highlight for LMTO must be our sold out concert of A Christmas Carol at the Lyceum Theatre – moments like that remind you that what we’re doing is really welcomed by audiences.”

LMTO’s first show of 2017 is romantic comedy Honeymoon in Vegas, based on the 1992 movie starring Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker. “Honeymoon in Vegas is SUCH a brilliant show,” enthuses Freddie. “It’s a proper Broadway comedy musical, complete with huge big band numbers, samba rhythms and sweeping Jason Robert Brown melodies which will take your breath away. It follows the story of Jack and Betsy, as they run away to get married in Las Vegas – but others have plans to disrupt, even cancel their wedding. I don’t want to say anymore, otherwise I’ll spoil the story!

“The show has all the hallmarks of a great musical which works in concert format. The songs are idiomatic, powerful and so fulfilling that they stand on their own two feet without needing the structure of a full production. Although set in the present day, the story is in many ways a Las Vegas myth, a legend which could take place in any time in the last 50 years – which means the music takes us through all of the big Broadway styles. If there is one thing LMTO loves, it’s a big Broadway tune!”

Like their previous concerts, which have featured stars including Robert Lindsay, Wendi Peters, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Celinde Schoenmaker, Honeymoon in Vegas boasts a stellar line-up of West End talent, and Freddie couldn’t be happier. “We’re thrilled to have such a talented cast on board. Samantha Barks is someone I’ve wanted to work with ever since I saw her sing Defying Gravity on the BBC’s I’d Do Anything programme. Having started work with her already, she’s perfect for the part of Betsy.

“Musical theatre followers will know Arthur Darvill from Once, but his current thrust is TV/film work, so it’s a delight to be bringing him back to the stage. Maxwell Caulfield is a living legend, and his oozing charm and effortless charisma make him the perfect Tommy. Rosie Ashe – Dame Rosie to her friends – is a class act, and as the original Carlotta from Phantom, I grew up listening to her voice on the recording. Simon Lipkin has played pretty much every comedy part going in the last ten years, and his comedy chops will be really brought into play as he gives his Roy in Act 2 – a high singing, high flying, high jumping Elvis impersonator. I could go on and on – the entire cast are glorious.”

For the first time, Freddie’s handing his baton to a guest conductor – the show’s composer, Jason Robert Brown. “It is nothing but a pleasure to be able to share the fun of conducting LMTO with Jason,” says Freddie. “All of my favourite conducting experiences have been with LMTO, because every person in the orchestra truly loves the music we’re working on. That makes such a difference: it produces an extra spark, an extra precision and extra care to produce the goods come show time. I think on the night I’ll be sad not to be up there, but overall it’s a really positive experience – I get to sit and watch the show for once, after all!”

The concert marks the beginning of an exciting season for LMTO: “Next up will be a trip to St Albans Cathedral where we’ll present our first compilation show: A Night on Broadway. Featuring all of your favourite showtunes, we’re going to rock one of the biggest churches in the country for one night only on Saturday 13th May. Then we go back in time, to Bernstein’s masterpiece Candide. We’ll be tackling this astonishing work back at Cadogan Hall – tickets for this are already beginning to disappear, showing that this score is ever popular.”

Don’t miss Honeymoon in Vegas at the London Palladium on Sunday 12th March.

Review: A Christmas Carol, the Musical in Concert at the Lyceum Theatre

The next time someone tries to tell me Facebook is a bad thing (I have a colleague who tells me this with monotonous regularity, so it undoubtedly won’t be long), I plan to tell them the story of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra. In 2015, Freddie Tapner wrote a casual post looking for fellow musicians to play through a musical, just for fun. 24 hours later, he’d received over 250 replies – and two weeks after that, LMTO was born.

The shared passion that inspired the orchestra’s creation could be felt in abundance last night at the Lyceum Theatre, where an all-star cast joined LMTO for their one-night-only concert performance of A Christmas Carol – never more so than when founder and Principal Conductor Freddie Tapner bounded on to the stage to rapturous applause. His infectious joy was just the first highlight in an evening full of festivity, optimism and goodwill towards men.

Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

Though the show, written by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, is better known on Broadway than in the West End, the story of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is as British as they come. Grumpy old man Ebenezer Scrooge is not a fan of Christmas. Or charity. Or indeed people – and definitely not children. Not, that is, until he’s visited on Christmas Eve by the spirit of his former partner Jacob Marley, who’s now suffering for the sins he committed in life. Marley’s appearance is followed by visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who help Scrooge to finally see the error of his ways, just in time.

The cast of singers brought together the cream of West End talent, including Robert Lindsay, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Peter Polycarpou, Hugh Maynard, Madalena Alberto and Norman Bowman, to name just a few. Alongside them were several young performers who proved more than a match for their more experienced co-stars; 9-year-old Tobias Ungleson particularly shone as Tiny Tim, with a performance that hit all the right notes both musically and emotionally.

But the biggest star of the evening, appropriately, was the orchestra. So often an afterthought for musical theatre audiences, here the musicians had the opportunity to take centre stage, and they didn’t waste a moment of it. It hardly mattered that the show was in a concert format; Alan Menken’s glorious score and the orchestra’s joyous performance of it told us everything we needed to know. Though not without its darker moments – the appearance of Jacob Marley (Norman Bowman) was suitably creepy, for instance – A Christmas Carol is, for the most part, a full-on celebration of all things festive, and if anyone left the Lyceum not feeling even a little uplifted – well, frankly they should probably change their name to Scrooge now and be done with it.

Photo credit: Jamie Scott-Smith

In fact the whole evening was so delightful that it almost feels wrong to find fault… so please don’t call me a Grinch for quietly pointing out that there were times when the orchestra’s enthusiasm became just a little overwhelming. Despite their best efforts, the singers were occasionally drowned out, and much of the spoken dialogue – particularly Robert Lindsay’s grouchy mutterings as Scrooge – was barely audible at all. (There was also one forgotten lines moment right at the end, but it was well covered, and by that point the entire theatre was so delirious with festive cheer that nobody gave a figgy pudding anyway.)

The main downside of the evening, though, is that it was only a one-off performance and we won’t get to see it again. However, it’s clear that the London Musical Theatre Orchestra are not going anywhere, and that is certainly news to which we can raise a festive glass or two.

So Merry Christmas – and God bless us, every one!

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉