Sarah Travis: So you want to be a musical supervisor?

As part of their guest editor week at WhatsOnStage, Chris Stafford and Nikolai Foster ask ”West Side Story”’s music supervisor Sarah Travis to give tips for aspiring theatremakers

Sarah Travis (right) with director Nikolai Foster during rehearsals for Scrooge the Musical in 2017
Sarah Travis (right) with director Nikolai Foster during rehearsals for Scrooge the Musical in 2017
© Manuel Harlan

As part of their guest editor week at WhatsOnStage, Curve Leicester's Chris Stafford and Nikolai Foster have invited a number of creatives who have worked with the venue to give career tips to aspiring theatremakers. This time, musical supervisor Sarah Travis answers ten questions about her work thusfar.

1) Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Sarah Travis and I am currently the music supervisor for West Side Story at Curve

2) When did you know that you wanted to be a musical supervisor?

Well, that's a tricky one as I started out as a comedy/cabaret pianist working with all sorts of stand-up comedians and cabaret singers. Then I moved into being a musical director and later an orchestrator. The supervisor role has been a relatively recent thing in the last five or so years, and it seemed a natural progression to start moving into this role. I sort of fell into it really. I also didn't want to tour on shows anymore so being a supervisor meant I can work on projects for shorter periods.

3) What was first project you worked on?

It was a London fringe show called Wide Eyes Kingdom which sadly closed after five performances…don't ask! But I made some good friends from it, and it was a steep learning curve.

4) Who helped you during the early part of your career?

A wonderful pianist/MD called Neil McArthur who at the time was MD-ing a production of Blues In The Night at the Piccadilly Theatre, kindly met me for lunch while I was in my last year of college. It was my favourite show at the time, and I loved what he had done on it. It had such soul, the band were amazing, and the performers at the top of their game.

He put me in touch with some other musicians/musical directors – basically he helped me network a bit (which I've always been terrible at!). He gave me some great advice, gave me hope and encouragement which in hindsight definitely led onto some other jobs.

I'll never forget his generosity and kindness.

5) What advice would you give to your younger self?

Trust yourself. Don't try to do it all at once. Forming a happy career takes a lot of time and experience. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Always be open to learning, be kind to others – it's a tough enough profession so kindness goes a long way.

The cast of West Side Story
The cast of West Side Story
© Ellie Kurttz

6) What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a musical supervisor?

I think work your way up through the industry slowly, gaining as much experience as possible – meet with other musical directors and directors – basically get as much advice and knowledge as you can. Be a sponge. Try to assist on shows to learn the craft and the way a show is put together. Learn about how other departments work. Learn about collaboration. A lot of being a supervisor is about communicating with other departments, being a diplomat, problem solving, casting, music prep, pre-production, liaising with music Fixers to book bands, etc.

7) What resources proved most valuable to you during your early career?

Friendships. Knowing other actors, musicians and directors – listening to their experiences – I very much learnt (and am still learning) on the job. I tried to gain as much knowledge of past and present shows, and went to see as much live theatre as I could.

8) What mistakes do you think are the easiest to make when starting out?

Trying to achieve your goals too soon. Experience is everything. Don't try to do it all at once. Try to vary your career as much as possible. Be open. Don't be afraid of asking people for help and advice.

9) What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Working with amazing people – I am always humbled by the amount of talent there is in our industry. I love collaborating, and creating new work with inspiring people.

10) What would you like to see in future generations?

The chance to create good work without commercial pressures. More rep theatres creating their own work and more investment in the development of new Musicals.