Orchestral triumph for music man

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am

IT took a slap across the face from his leading lady to make Peter Casey dump a budding acting career and become a musical conductor.

''I used to act and sing and dance many moons ago,'' said the affable production musical director of Cats in Asia and Australia for the Really Useful Company.

''I was understudy to the leading man in Irene and I hated it.

''One night I stood too close to Julie Anthony and she slapped my face.

''I approached the musical director who let me conduct a matinee of the show and that launched me into a whole new career, one which I love.'' Mr Casey said he knew he could give more from the orchestra pit than being up on stage and time has proven him right.

He was musical director for the original Australian production of Cats .

''It was a fun time with all the original creators working with Andrew Lloyd Webber,'' he said.

''It was very special because Cats was the first international West End-type production in Australia.

''What shocked me was my producer saying we'd sold six months in advance when I hadn't even started the first rehearsal.

''I just thought 'what if it happens'?'' There were no 'ifs' and the show was a resounding success, running for years.

No less successful has been Peter Casey's career, but he admits Cats , his sixth Andrew Lloyd Webber production, is his favourite.

As those attending the Hong Kong show will realise, Cats has a unique sound, produced by an invisible 15-man orchestra.

The orchestra is hidden away in a sound-proof room off to the right of the stage. From there, Peter Casey conducts, while watching the show on a closed circuit screen.

A monitor allows him to hear every breath the cast takes.

Out on stage, the cast also watches a monitor, taking their cues from their tuxedoed conductor.

''My facial and hand gestures are seen by the cast and I work to the TV screen as if I am working to the live actors which, of course, they are,'' said Mr Casey.

''I have to see Grizabella not as a small black and white spot on a screen but as the singer who rehearsed in front of me earlier.'' In blackouts, where the monitors go off or, as happened in Seoul, the light on Mr Casey goes out leaving him in darkness, both sides must literally play it by ear.

''I take my cue from their breathing, they listen to the orchestra,'' said Mr Casey.

''For the audience, there is no distraction of musicians and it gets them closer to the stage.

''It also means the music and sound can be directed around the theatre rather than coming from the front.

''This creates a mystical, inhuman, strange sound whereas usually, no matter how softly a musician plays, you still know the sound is coming from the orchestra pit.

''But we can take the sound down to a whisper and it will still be heard up the back and from directions all over the theatre.'' Mr Casey has brought the touring nucleus in from Australia and completed the orchestra with seven local Hong Kong musicians.

''I wanted to invest some of our styles and music into Hong Kong,'' he said.

''The main problems we face with this is finding musicians with the stamina and the knowledge of the style because we play everything - rock, jazz swing.'' Mr Casey said the Lyric Theatre was perfect for the Cats sound.

''We don't need to boost the volume in order to get the energy,'' he said.

''I just love the sound here.'' Mr Casey's passion for his work and his love of this musical in particular is told with every note that is played.

And once a week he takes a turn in the audience to keep and ear on the music and catch another performance of his favourite show.