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Making music with the Addams

The organ overture to a live performance of The Phantom of the Opera at Auckland’s Aotea Centre was an epiphany for seven-year-old Sean Scanlen.

Well, according to Scanlen family lore it was an epiphany.

“My parents tell me that was my musical awakening,” says the organist, pianist, music teacher and, now, musical director (MD) for Musical Theatre Gisborne’s The Addams Family.

“A chandelier covered with white cloth sits in a dusty old opera house,” recalls Scanlen of the Phantom production.

“They’re auctioning it off. As the play goes back in time the chandelier rises and the organ overture fills the auditorium.”

Last year, Scanlen filled the Whangarei Theatre Company auditorium with the organ overture and the rest of the score for the Whangarei Theatre Company’s production of the musical.

In January he moved to Gisborne to take up a position as music teacher at Lytton High School and took on the role of musical director and keyboard player with the onstage band for The Addams Family.

Along with putting the band together, Scanlen’s role as MD is to teach the cast the music and work with the director to ensure the music and the director’s vision match, he says.

“What I like about what (director Belinda Campbell) is doing is she makes sure each ensemble character has something interesting to do.”

The ensemble includes the Addams’ ancestors who act as a kind of chorus, in the classical Greek theatre sense. They comment on the action and sometimes are part of it.

“I tend to think of the ensemble as one unit that works seamlessly together,” says Scanlen.

Part of Scanlen’s job as MD is to give notes about what he wants from the cast’s singing, he says.

“I take it upon myself to teach people who might be lacking in confidence to sing. I’m not a trained singer; all the tips I give come from years of working in theatre and absorbing techniques and seeing what works.

“In musical theatre you’re thinking about where the cues are. When you look at a score you know a phrase might be a bit louder so you might think the band needs to come in here or vamp there.”

With its semi-pop, semi-rock and some classical elements, composer Andrew Lippa’s music for the show is well-written, he says.

“It takes influences from a whole lot of things. The first song is Latin influenced which makes sense because the character Gomez is Mexican.”

The comedy opens with a visit by the ghoulish Addams family to the graveyard for an annual gathering of family members (living, dead and undecided) to celebrate what it is to be an Addams with the song, When You’re an Addams.

“Every single part is written for someone at a professional standard on their instrument,” says Scanlen.

“The guitar part has some cool things in it and some really hard parts. It’s all perfectly idiomatic and it can be hard. There are times when I really have to concentrate when playing the keyboard.”

Scanlen first became involved with musical theatre in his teens when he was stage hand for a Whangarei Theatre Company production of Jekyll & Hyde.

“My father played the bishop in it. They had some fire special effects. Mr Hyde murders the bishop in a little bit of brutal bludgeoning followed by fire. It was safe but it singed his eyebrows off one night.”

He was later stagehand for a production of Oliver, then played keyboard for Cabaret, and Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story.

“Then I went to university and became a musician. I played piano before I went to university and learned organ on the side while I was doing my Master’s in organ music.

“That was a phase in my life when I was fascinated by Bach.”

When Scanlen arrived in Gisborne in January he knew no one, he says. He was initially hesitant about taking on the role of musical director for MTG’s production of The Addams Family because he knew he would have to put a band together, he says.

“I asked people who was good, phoned them up and they said ‘yes, cool’.”

Scanlen is no stranger to The Addams Family, it turns out.

“The Addams Family was the first show I was musical director for when I arrived in Whangarei in 2016. I did it again in 2017.

“It seems to follow me around,” he says.

The Addams Family, directed by Belinda Campbell with Sean Scanlen as musical director. Lawson Field Theatre, December 11-19. Tickets from i-SITE or ticketek.

THE MUSICAL DIRECTOR: Pictured here playing the organ last year at Whangerei’s Anglican Christ Church, pianist, organist and music teacher Sean Scanlen moved to Gisborne in January and is now musical director for Musical Theatre Gisborne’s upcoming production of The Addams Family.Picture by Tracey Morris