Hello folks! Welcome to our first instalment of the Multi-Hyphenate Series. A multi-hyphenate is someone who works multiple jobs, usually within the entertainment industry. It seems that no one is ever just an actor; that job title is usually attached to a long list of the multiple careers of a person working in the arts. In this series, we’re going to shine a light onto some of those artistic jobs that you might be less familiar with and meet some of the fabulous people who hold those positions. Without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into the world of music directing with our first multi-hyphenate: Chris Tsujiuchi!
Q: Let the people know who you are & what your multi-hyphenate title is!
A: Hello! I am Chris Tsujiuchi and I am a musical director-performer-cabaret artist-teacher-musician. I am based in Toronto, Canada but my work has taken me to Vancouver, Canada; Edinburgh, Scotland; London, England; Cape Town, South Africa, and beyond!
Q: When did you first become involved in the arts?
A: Probably music class in elementary school. We all had to be in a choir in the 6th grade and my music teacher took notice of my singing abilities. They told me “You should come audition for The Wizard of Oz!” and I said “No” … and then they offered me extra credit, so I said “Ok” (laughs). I ended up playing the Cowardly Lion, and that was my first show!
I was terrified. I have a theory that there are two types of musical theater performers: the ones that are drawn to performing because it is an outlet for their outgoing, extroverted personalities, and the performers that are very introverted who allow musical theater to bring them out of their shell. I was definitely the latter.
Q: Can you describe the job of a music director for us?
A: Sure! So, a music director works with the cast of a musical to make sure they know all their vocal parts, and that the vocals in the show are clean, clear, and under control. The music director (also known as an MD) works with the band (or orchestra depending on how big the show is) to rehearse the music and lead the band during the run of the musical. Basically, a music director handles all musical aspects of a production. It’s their job to bring the band and the singers together.
Q: How did you first become involved in music directing?
A: By the time I was in my final year of theater school, I started to realize that I was not going to be a full time performer. Not because I’m not talented enough or anything like that, but as I was looking at the musical theater canon of work, there were not enough parts in these shows for me to make performing a full time job.
I am an intersectional person. I’m not just, you know, LGBTQ+, or a fat character actor, or a person of color. I am all of these things wrapped into one. Generally speaking, you don’t see a lot of intersectional characters in musicals, TV, and film. If the character is gay, they are thin and white. If there’s a plus-sized character actor, they aren’t queer or BIPOC. If they’re Asian, they’re not queer or big. These characters don’t get to be more than one thing, or so says the industry.
After spending my degree studying musicals, I remember thinking that I am not the right fit for a lot of these shows, BUT I still have a love of theater, a passion for creating theater, and a musical background. I studied piano and choral music, and knew that I could easily music direct a show. I had a meeting with department leaders at school to help get connected with musical directors, shadowed an MD, and then soon after I graduated, the first show I was asked to music direct was a production of Rocky Horror at the Lower Ossington Theatre. That show led to another show, and soon I was pretty much working as a full time MD and music teacher.
From there, I worked with Sharron Matthews as her musical collaborator for five years and learned a lot about cabaret performance from her. Together, we went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Cape Town Variety Festival. As a self-produced cabaret artist, I became known in the Toronto cabaret scene for my All 90s Cabaret and my annual A Very Chris-terical Christmas Cabaret, held at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is the largest queer theater in North America. I’ve been happy to branch into music directing and cabaret because it fulfils my artistic passion while still pursuing my performing career. In any case, it’s much better than sitting in a cubicle from 9-5 (laughs).
Q: What is your favorite aspect of being an MD, what do you find the most challenging, and what has surprised you the most about the job?
A: My favorite and least favorite aspects are the same: How mentally activating the job is. You have to think about 30,000 things at once. It’s just like how you need to multitask as a performer, but it uses your brain in a different way. While leading the band, you need to be watching the performers on stage because your next musical cue might be dictated by their movements. For example, if you’re playing a vamp, you’re playing through the same 2 or 4 bars over and over again while waiting for the actor to say the cue line. You’re actively thinking, “How are they going to say the line tonight?” or, “Is this set change taking longer than expected?”. It can be mentally draining, but it keeps you stimulated because no two shows are ever the same.
It’s surprising to me how many people are unaware about what a MD is and what they do. It’s also surprising to me how many people within the industry assume that it’s the only thing that you do. As I have gained success as a music director, I’ve noticed that when I do perform in shows, a lot of industry folks will tell me “I didn’t even know that you sang!”.
Q: For anyone looking to get into music directing, what advice would you give them?
A: Take a music theory class if you haven’t studied it before. It actually helps, I promise! If you don’t already play piano, start taking piano lessons. If you come from a performing background and are looking to branch into music directing, you are at an advantage because you will speak the language of performers in a way that a lot of MD’s don’t. Most music directors went to school for music, and have never heard of concepts like stakes, objectives, or beats (in the theatrical sense). There are things you will know as a performer that someone with a music degree will not. If you can “speak performer”, it will take you great places as a music director.
Q: What is your favorite part about being a multi hyphenate?
A: There’s never a dull moment!
Q: What are you currently working on and where can people find you?
A: Right now, I’m in Calgary music directing Escape to Margaritaville for Theatre Calgary (Opening April 18th, 2023). Following that, I am the Associate Artistic Director for SING! Toronto Vocal Arts Festival (running May 28th – June 3rd in Toronto, Canada). My next performing gigs are for An Incomplete List at Toronto Fringe Festival (July 2023) and Little Shop of Horrors as Audrey II at Capitol Theatre in Port Hope (August 2023).
Q: Any parting thoughts?
A: There are people in this business who will try to convince you that there is not enough room for everyone in this industry. Particularly if you are outside of the “norm”. Maybe you don’t have a typical body type; maybe you have a physical or mental disability; maybe you are BIPOC or LGBTQ+ and don’t fit into the traditional boxes. BUT! Things are changing, and I’m here to tell you that there is room in this industry for everyone.
A huge thank you to Chris for his insight into the world of music directing! Give Chris a follow on Instagram & Twitter @christsujiuchi and check out this clip below of Chris performing “Good Mother” by Jann Arden, featuring Kevin Wong on violin and vocals.