Television may have its Melrose Place, but Ron Melrose's place is behind a music stand in the pit at Scarlet Pimpernel, where he serves as both musical director and conductor.
"Musical directing is a hybrid," Melrose told Playbill On-Line during previews for tonight's opening. "It often involves being the conductor of the show, but the two are not synonymous. As for the directing, for an original musical, there are hundreds of production problems: how do we underscore? what musical materials should we use? Should we open this song for a dance sequence? Should we try to buy applause on this song? It's the technical skill of working with an audience, trying different tempi. There's extra ambiguity now because there are musical coordinators, musical supervisors. It can be production-by-production in terms of what those titles mean. Still, musical director is likely to be the creative head of the music department, subject always to the composer, of course."
Melrose also serves as vocal arranger for the Frank Wildhorn, Nan Knighton musical, a task he describes as, "taking a song from the composer that involves the whole ensemble and creating a choral arrangement. The composer may not take the time to say, `I want altos or tenors on this note.' So the vocal arranger needs a background in choir, vocal jazz."
Melrose says his work with Wildhorn is a good combination because the composer brings "freshness and a contemporary quality" to Broadway, while "I bring the experience of dealing with shows since 1976. I'm sort of the crusty old man of the music department. Yet I'm totally in disagreement with those who say Frank's music is too pop for Broadway."
But the musical director's previous Broadway experiences didn't always come up (Mel)roses. He'd been in the business 1977-90, but after two major flops reconsidered his calling. "I worked on Smile, which broke my heart. In workshop it was wonderful, but the act of bringing it to Broadway involved sapping an enormous amount of what was special about it. And after Legs Diamond [the Peter Allen musical that closed quickly], I went back to grad school for a degree in choral conducting and worked in a church for nine years. But I was working in a place that moved towards Christian conservatism and showed serious discrimination towards other lifestyles. The church I was working at took a wild turn towards the prejudicial, and Wildhorn called at the right time. He had me on Jekyll & Hyde as co-vocal arranger and assistant musical director." Pimpernel isn't the only project on Melrose's plate; he's also busy working on his own musical. "I've created a concept album for Judy Malloy who's in Side Show. The CD will likely be released next year, with a staging to follow. Like Frank Wildhorn, I'm sold on the idea of concept album first. These days, it can take the place of an out-of-town tryout as far as the score is concerned."
Now that Melrose has returned to theatre, he's "back with a vengeance. I assisted David Chase on the workshop of Side Show. I assisted Michael Kosarin on the workshops of King David. I like to think of [Scarlet Pimpernel] as the beginning of my second career."
Continued Melrose, "The part I like to call `musical directing' will be over after opening night, but then I'll stay with the show as first conductor for as long as it feels right. And this is the first time I've ever conducted on opening night! For the first time I have my tuxedo to put on, so I'll be experiencing something new. I'll pray for everyone in the ensemble and probably be wrapping gifts that day. Oh, and I will absolutely be there for the Gypsy Robe; wouldn't miss it for the world!"