What is an actor-muso show?

Wed 2 Feb 2022
The cast of Beautiful sit around a grand piano, they energetically hold their instruments above them and cheer.

Our production of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical will celebrate the incredible songs of Carole King as an actor-muso production. But what exactly is an actor-muso show and what can you expect to see on stage? Our Birkbeck Resident Assistant Director Thyrza Abrahams tells us more.

Actor Musicians are exactly as they are described – they are brilliant actors who also are brilliant musicians. Many performers are called ‘triple threats’, meaning they can sing, dance and act amazingly, well actor-musicians are quadruple threats, being able to sing, dance, act and play at least one instrument to a brilliant standard.

Normally shortened to the phrase ‘actor-muso’, actor-musicians have often trained on specific actor-musicianship courses, and most will have started playing at least one instrument when they were young. There aren’t specific instruments actor-musicians have to play, there are many actor-musos who play the drums for example, even thought this is a stationary instrument. Also, actor-musos are often expected to play multiple instruments in one show, with some performers even playing seven or eight, or even more, including sometimes ones they haven’t even played before.

Often when you hear the phrase actor-muso it is normally used to describe particular shows, rather than performers. These will be shows, normally musicals, where there isn’t a band or orchestra. Instead, all the actors will be actor-musicians and they will all play the music on stage (while singing and dancing).

While these shows have been around for a long time, a new trend started following the show Once, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2011 before moving to Broadway in 2012 and transferring to the West End in 2013. Set in an Irish pub, the folk-inspired music was fully played on stage by all the actors, and the show went on to win eight Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards and a Grammy.

Once seemed to create a huge wave of actor-muso shows, such as the musical version of Amelie, as well as Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

More recently there has been a branch-off of actor-muso shows – particularly in the UK, Gig Theatre, which is a mix between a gig/concert and a theatre show. These shows are more visible at fringe festivals and venues such as Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Bush Theatre in West London. The styles of music in Gig Theatre range from folk to rock, to rap and R&B, but one thing is constant, that the show should have the energy and atmosphere of a live gig or concert, and many shows often encourage the audience to join in, whether that being by standing up and dancing, or by singing along. Some companies who are leading the charge on Gig Theatre are Middle Child Hull and Wildcard, both of whom have had hit shows at Edinburgh Fringe which they have after toured around the country and transferred to London.

Our actor-muso production of Beautiful is very exciting to us as it’s the first time the show has been done as an actor-musician production. Using actor-musos allows us to put the music at the centre of the production, which works brilliantly when we’re looking at Carole King and all the amazing music she created. We are very lucky to be working with Sarah Travis as our Musical Supervisor. In this role she has written all the new orchestrations for the show, breaking it into different parts to work with all the instruments the actors can play. Sarah is hailed as the pioneer of actor-musicianship, from her seminal production of Sweeney Todd in 2005, which started at The Watermill in Newbury, before transferring to the West End and to Broadway, where she won a Tony for her work on the show and became the first ever woman to win the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations.

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical runs at Curve 28 February – 12 March. To find out more and book tickets, click here.

Image credit: The cast of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Photography by Pamela Raith.