A passion for musical theatre

Musical director Mark Dorrell tests a piano from Alexander Pianos for the upcoming production of Into the Woods at  the Fortune Theatre. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Musical director Mark Dorrell tests a piano from Alexander Pianos for the upcoming production of Into the Woods at the Fortune Theatre. Photo: Gregor Richardson
From the West End, London, to the Fortune Theatre, Dunedin, Mark Dorrell has been driven by a love of musical theatre, writes Rebecca Fox.

If 1991 had not been such a terrible year for stage shows in London, Mark Dorrell may have never ended up sitting in front of an old electronic keyboard in the Fortune Theatre's rehearsal room.

The musical was the European premiere of Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim in London's West End.

It was Dorrell's first West End job and his role as assistant conductor was as scary as it was exciting.

But it was a tough time for the West End as the Gulf War meant people were not travelling, the city had its worst snowfall in decades and then there were the IRA bombings.

It all combined to cause some shows to collapse and others, such as Into the Woods, to finish their seasons early.

So Dorrell ended up with four months between jobs and decided to travel to the United States where he discovered flights to New Zealand were dirt cheap.

''I always thought I'd like to visit New Zealand. I can remember never having felt so cold as I did in Christchurch in June but it's when I fell in love with New Zealand.''

So when time came for a change of pace from his hectic six-day-a-week musical career, he chose New Zealand for semi-retirement.

Not that it was successful. He still works full-time, only now it's at the New Zealand Music School at Victoria University.

A position that is not quite as demanding as his 10-year West End career where he worked on two other Sondheim works - Assassins and Passion.

He also conducted A Little Night Music with Judi Dench, Oklahoma with Hugh Jackman, and Peter Pan with Sir Ian McKellen and worked on Guys And Dolls, Sweeney Todd, Candide, Lady in the Dark and Singin' in the Rain.

Not bad for a boy from the rural English countryside who discovered his love of theatre at a tiny school of about 200 pupils.

''We did the best school productions in the area.''

But it was the release of The Sound of Music that did it. The family had to make the trip to Birmingham to see it and he will never forget it.

''I was 7 or 8 and I just fell in love.''

Dorrell learned the piano and organ growing up and studied classical music at college.

''But it's only ever been music and words for me. As a teenager there was nothing more I wanted to do than do great pieces.

''I worshiped the works of Stephen Sondheim.''

While he loved straight theatre, he found musical theatre reached people on a deeper level.

''For me the music tells the story.''

He had seen the Tony Award-winning production of Into the Woods on Broadway, and fell in love with the piece.

''I thought it was brilliantly funny, witty and thought-provoking.''

So to get the job on the European premiere was a dream come true for Dorrell.

It was not an easy path though. On his first day he had to rehearse the entire play with the writer and composer in the room.

''It was exciting and scary at the same time.''

Sondhiem became a champion of Dorrell's work, often recommending him as conductor.

''I did a lot of his work and he seemed to be keen for me to be involved.''

When he had a break between shows he would head out to Bermuda to visit a friend who had married a local. He was godfather to their daughter.

''It was a great way to escape a busy, stressful lifestyle. It's only a seven-hour flight away.''

While Bermuda has a small population it has a thriving music and theatre scene, which Dorrell found himself immersed in after asking on their behalf if a Bermudian company could produce Les Miserable.

They got permission with the proviso that Dorrell conducted it.

He was near the end of his contract on Oklahoma so took up the opportunity, which led to him being involved in an opera production for its arts festival.

What was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical. It turned into four years.

''I had a lovely time. I did miss the West End. I'd been working there for 10 years doing back-to-back musicals.''

While he did not realise it at the time, he was exhausted working six days a week, often doing two shows a day.

''I'd gone 18 months without a holiday.''

So he decided to take a year off and travel. He had always promised himself he would revisit New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands.

''It was the best year of my life.''

While travelling around New Zealand he made the decision to move to the country.

''I thought I was coming here to semi-retire, but I've been kept very busy.''

As well as working at the New Zealand Music School, he works with Toi Whakaari, New Zealand Drama School where he met Jonathon Hendry, who is now the Fortune's artistic director.

''We did two Sondheim pieces together. I'm thrilled to be back working with Jonty.''

It was his fourth time doing Into the Woods as he had been involved in a production in Bermuda, at Toi Whakaari and most recently a junior version for schools in Wellington.

He knew the production, described as a de-constructed musical fairy tale, inside out and enjoyed the work, as it was still relevant given the extremism and fundamentalism in the world, he said.

''It's a fantastic cast here in Dunedin. You are very lucky to have such a great company.''

It is very exciting to be working with such talented ''youngsters'' who had taken on the appropriate age roles.

''It's wonderful to have the right people of the right age play the younger parts. They are doing wonderful work.''

Having such a large cast - 17- is also a challenge and it is probably one of the biggest casts for a production at the Fortune.

''I'm thrilled. They are truly wonderful.''

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