Now residing in London, former Sydney based trombonist Colin Philpott plays regularly in musical theatre, studio and television bands, and he spoke with Jamie Kennedy about his show work.
Jamie: What is your playing background and how did you come to be playing regularly in shows?
Colin: I was given a trumpet when I was 8 years old, found a teacher through a family friend and joined a brass band. The bandleader was a trombone player and he was starting off a youth big band, he needed trombones and said he’d teach me for free. There was something about the trombone I’d always liked… little did I know! Having started on valves, he put me on a baritone in the brass band to understand the concept of the bigger horn.
When I was sixteen, instead of completing my HSC (Years 11 and 12) I was accepted into the NSW Conservatorium of Music Jazz Course, headed by Don Burrows. What an education! Don was brilliant – a great mentor and very understanding of my “greenness”. James Morrison was my teacher in the first year and George Brodbeck in my second year. Shortly afterward I met Bob Johnson, who later became a valued teacher and dear friend, and I have always been in awe of his incredible musicality and craftsmanship. Both George and Bob were instrumental in deciding where my future lay – either as a jazz soloist or commercial musician. I was a far better ensemble player than soloist, and so I simply took these strengths (and weaknesses!!!) and worked hard at them. I’ve always felt that musical theatre orchestras are to commercial musicians as opera and ballet orchestras are to classical or orchestral musicians.
I started playing amateur shows whilst I was studying at the Con and it was an environment I felt very comfortable in. I did loads of them – I remember playing five different productions of West Side Story in one calendar year. After doing some depping on 42nd Street at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, I got my first professional show playing 2nd trombone in the 1988 production of Anything Goes at the State Theatre. I was booked to play lead on 42nd Street for the tour to East Berlin (funnily enough, to dep for George Brodbeck), but only weeks before leaving, the Wall came down, the tour was cancelled and we got paid in full.
In 1991, I moved to London to “grow up” and was depping on Starlight Express, Cats and Cotton Club. When I returned home in 1993 the phone started ringing and eventually found myself playing on most shows that passed through Sydney, one after another. I worked out that I’ve played on about 36 Australian Productions as a full time player and about another 10 as a dep. Now back in London, I’m depping on Miss Saigon, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon.
Jamie: Do you do other kinds of playing or work outside of the pit?
Colin: Yeah I do and really, you have to! To start with it’s hard to survive on just a theatre salary alone as shows in Australia have a limited life. It’s good when one of the biggies comes along for a year or so, but generally they run for 3 to 6 months (if they don’t close much sooner than expected, which some unfortunately have), so you’ve got to create that “minimum wage” via other gigs or teaching.
My schedule in Australia ranged from conducting primary & secondary bands, tutoring in schools, mentoring, and playing in recording sessions and orchestras/bands/ensembles backing Australian and international artists. It’s a varied life but that’s the very reason why you need to work outside of the pit – to keep the creative juices flowing, as well as the income. We’re very lucky that we can actually take performances off to go and do other things. Companies often prefer we didn’t (and shouldn’t) as it would make their administrative life easier and because, they say, no one else can send in a sub, so why should we? It’s great that we can, and it should always be respected as a privilege in my view.
Apart from the theatre work, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people and projects that remind me why I wanted to do this for a living. Some of those highlights have been playing with Frank Sinatra in Monte Carlo, recording the CD Diorama with Silverchair, playing all of the low brass on James Morrison’s Olympic Fanfare (which we recorded a month out from the 2000 Olympic Games), being James’s entire trombone section when we recorded his Gospel CD, being a casual on Channel 9’s Midday Show, and playing in the bands for Maria Schneider, Bobby Shew, Bob Mintzer, Tom Burlinson, Ricky May, Tommy Tycho, Sammy Davis Jr, Natalie Cole, Anthony Warlow, Bernadette Peters, Dame Shirley Bassey, Barry White and Diana Krall.
Colin playing with Tom Burlinson in the “Sinatra at The Sands” show