George Francis is a prolific musical director, who has previously worked on shows such as the West End’s Amélie the Musical, Blood Brothers (UK tour) and Miracle on 34th Street at the Liverpool Playhouse. Together with writer and composer Tim Firth (writer of Kinky Boots and Calendar Girls the Musical) and associate musical director Ros Jones (West End’s Matilda and RENT 20th Anniversary Tour), Francis has created the music for the major new musical Now is Good. In this interview, he gives us an exclusive insight into that creative process.
Hi George, can you tell us a bit about your career so far?
I started playing piano when I was about 8, but I hated it until I got a really cool teacher who came to the house and played Clocks by Coldplay, then I practiced every hour: I had to be like him. As a kid, I wanted to be an actor but then when I realised I could play the piano in theatre, I never looked back.
Through my teenage years I played piano for lots of classes in Liverpool at various theatre schools, and got my first pro job Musical Directing at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool when I was 16. I didn’t go to Uni or music college, I just kept working. I used to play ballet classes at LIPA in the mornings, rep at a college in the afternoon and then in the piano bar at the Liverpool Empire in the evenings. They were long days but really rewarding and I learned how to work.
I got my “break” as an MD at the Liverpool Everyman when I played auditions for the rep and the then artistic director Gemma Bodinetz hired me to MD Fiddler on the Roof, the opening show of the season. From there, this led to many other opportunities including meeting Tim Firth the following year when we workshopped a piece. Since then I’ve done loads of musicals I’ve loved like Amelie and also The Wizard of Oz at Storyhouse, and now I live in London and play West End musicals whilst doing exciting new shows like this.
How did you choose the instruments to realise the music of Now is Good?
Choosing the instruments for the show was a process of conversation between Tim and I. After about a year of workshopping and developing the music together just for the piano, we started to talk about the orchestration. We knew we wanted the “Grappelli” sound for Now is Good, so a violin was essential. I was also keen to have a cello as I think it’s the most emotive instrument, especially in theatre. We knew we needed a rhythm section too (bass, guitar, drums), in addition to the keyboards, and then the final piece of the puzzle was to decide on a reed part (clarinet/flute) for colour. It took us a few versions of what the band line up might be to get there, and it always depends on how many musicians you can actually have from a budget point of view.
What are the challenges and opportunities with Now is Good and how is it different to other shows that you’ve worked on?
The challenge is that this piece is like no other. It’s a musical play really and the music weaves in and out like nothing I’ve ever worked on before. The songs are always very character and narrative led, and there’s lots of what we call ‘Colla Voce’, where the band follows the singer, so we’ve had a little hatch installed in the stage so that I can pop out of the stage and make eye contact with the actors to bring it all together.
It’s a real opportunity to mix styles. There’s the Grappelli sound, a more orchestral sound, a 60s sound for the character of Ted, and the swirl of memories for Alice and much more! It’s such a heart-warming show, the music is sort of like a film score – taking you with it at all times.
How do you prepare for conducting?
Preparing for conducting requires lots of practice. You’ve got to be detailed about what you’re going to do so it’s clear for the musicians and the actors, and is passionate without being distracting, as well as conveys the narrative without losing the technical aspect of keeping it all together. I mark my score up in lots of detail, and we have band calls to practice and a sitzprobe where the actors join to sing through with the band.
Can you tell us about how you approach the rehearsal process?
Approaching this rehearsal process has been a long time coming. I started working on this project with Tim in January of 2020, just before the first lockdown. We spent a lot of time developing the music over Zoom, then I prepared a full vocal/score for a workshop we did last year, and then from what we learnt there, we workshopped and developed the music even further – changing arrangements, keys, and even cutting some songs. Then I get the piano and vocal score ready so that everyone can see the music, ready for day one.
I like to send the actors what we call ‘note bashes’ of my playing their tunes on the piano and singing, so they can learn in advance if they want to so we can get stuck into the detail of the acting through song and music.