Elaine Bermitz talks to Paul Salter, the musical director of the Jewish Theatre Company’s recent production of Fiddler on the Roof held at Middleton Arena.
How and where did your love for music begin?
You could say it all began with Fiddler. There was always a piano in the house and I always played and enjoyed it, but when I was about six my parents took me to see Topol in the West End production of Fiddler on the Roof. I remember that sense of being drawn in and by the end I was transfixed, in tears. I suppose I was just more than usually sensitive to the music.
What came next?
Throughout my time at school, I carried on playing the piano. I wasn’t brilliant but I loved it and went to see musicals as often as I could, especially Gilbert and Sullivan when the D’Oyle Carte came to the Opera House – which they did for about six weeks each year – I would go every night. I would sit right behind the conductor. It gave me a tremendous insight into the craft of conducting. By this time I was at Bury Grammar School and had excellent music teachers and was winning the odd piano competition.
Also, from the age of 10, I became the child accompanist to the Mandy Sue Show run by Mandy’s mum Rita Noah. We played at old people’s homes and rehearsed every Sunday afternoon.
My father then became chairman of the newly re-formed Jewish Theatre Group. I accompanied the rehearsals and played in the orchestra for the first two productions.
By then I had decided to study music at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), where I spent four years studying solo Piano.
During this time, when I was just 19, the musical director of the Jewish Theatre Company quit four weeks before the production of Funny Girl was due to open. I accepted the job of honorary conductor without even knowing what that meant. That was the first of many shows I conducted for them over the next 10 years and I spent the next three years at the RNCM specialising in accompaniment.
The theatre group folded for a few years and I worked with other companies, teaching and gaining experience. When the theatre group restarted I did two more performances with them and would probably have stayed there had I not decided to make Aliyah in late 2000 with my wife, Leah, who is Israeli, and our young children.
Was that as dramatic a step as it sounds?
Yes – we settled in Gush Etzion, between Jerusalem and Hebron, and I had about an hour and a half’s work a week confirmed as a conductor at a community centre there.
It is a beautiful place – we still live there – but entirely different to Manchester. I didn’t even speak very good Ivrit. I remember thinking ‘What have I done?’ However I quickly began to teach piano and applied for a job at a travel agent, who amazingly turned out to have an ambition to produce musical theatre.
I realised that there was a thriving musical theatre scene among the English speaking immigrants and was able to resume the career I thought I had left behind in Manchester.
I subsequently met Robert Binder – an outstanding theatre manager – and we began a long association in musical theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan, and composition. We are co-directors of the Encore Educational Theatre in Jerusalem, where we both perform and teach stagecraft; we are in our eighth season now.
It has taken longer to establish my name in conducting circles, but I have done so and I also accompany a cantorial choir. I have played with the London Festival Orchestra, and many times at the Foreign Office. I also had the pleasure of conducting Gilbert and Sullivan at the Buxton Opera House, having bought some members of the Encore Theatre over to perform.
Among all this was there a stand out highlight?
I think that staging the Mikado Centre in Tel Aviv in front of the Japanese Ambassador was pretty good.
How has your latest production of ‘Fiddler’ been?
It’s been a joy from start to finish. It’s a pleasure to work with Robert and Debbie again and also to share in the revitalisation of the Jewish Theatre Company. Amateur theatre, when performed to professional standards, is fantastically rewarding for performers and audience alike.