During the run of the radio play It’s A Wonderful Life that I was involved with last December I had the chance to talk to Richard Coombes. He was our very talented piano player for the show and I discovered he’s had quite a career in the professional theatre world including seven years with Phantom of the Opera. Thought I’d find out a little more about him.
Where are you from originally and how did you first get to Lethbridge?
I was born In Cirencester, Gloucestershire in England. We lived there until I was 11 years old and at which point we emigrated to Canada and came to Lethbridge because my father had a sister and brother living here who could sponsor us for the time required by the government.
What was your life like growing up?
Life growing up was fairly normal. At age 8 I started taking piano lessons in England, and the rest of my career stems from that.
What got you first inspired to pursue music?
Both my grandparents on my mother’s side played the piano , and I remember at a very young age watching my grandfather playing piano in a small group that he played with and was inspired by that. Music was always playing where they lived and I grew up listening to mostly soundtracks of musicals like Carousel and Oklahoma.
What made you decide on getting your music degree at UBC?
I ended up at UBC because while I was in my last year at U of L , a professor from UBC came and gave a master class, and after the class was over, he asked me where I was considering doing my Master’s degree. I was thinking of U of T, but he was able to get me a scholarship to UBC so that was the University I chos
What was your first gig after graduating.
My first gig after graduating was as rehearsal pianist for Vancouver Opera chorus and main stage production
Talk about your time with Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. Describe what you did and what was a typical day.
Phantom of the Opera ran for 10 years in Toronto , and I was part of that production for 7 and a half years after joining the tour in Montreal in 1991. Because of the size of the production, a typical day was doing clean up rehearsals, rehearsals for understudies and a ballet barre every morning because there were ballerinas in the show
There were many phantoms playing that role during your time. Who stands out for you?
There were in fact many Phantoms during my time , but the two that stand out for me are still the brilliant Colm Wilkinson and Peter Karrie who was absolutely captivating in the role.
All those years with the same music night after night. How did you not go insane?
To answer the question, how did I not go insane doing the same music night after night, my answer is, no 2 shows were exactly the same. I started conducing the show when on tour in Winnipeg , and after that , depending on who was understudying a certain role, or who swung into another part made a difference to how the show felt. I started out as associate conductor , at which point there were 2 of us, so we never could copy exactly how the other person led the show, so always a challenge. I also spent time with singers doing other repertoire, either opera or music theatre outside of the show to keep us fresh.
You did a lot of touring with the Phantom.
I did the Canadian tour which I started in Montreal, the Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, then joined the Toronto production. The International tours sent us to Hawaii , Alaska, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and an Asian tour of “Cinderella” which I joined in China, then on to Hong Kong , Singapore and Bangkok.
What would you say are the big differences between doing a professional show in Toronto compared to doing a show in a place like Lethbridge?
There a quite a few differences between doing a professional show in Toronto and doing a show in Lethbridge. The biggest difference would be the size of the audiences and the amount of theaters that are in the 2 cities. At one point in the mid 90’s, there were 5 or 6 shows running at the same time in Toronto and the size of the city was able to support those productions. Also, that decade was when the mega musicals were being produced , like Les Miserables, Phantom. Miss Saigon etc.
How tough is it to be in the arts and live in Toronto?
When I was living in Toronto, it was still quite tough to be in the arts. As is the case in most big cities, it was quite competitive and lots of actors, dancers and musicians were competing for the same jobs. In which case, when you had one, you tended to hang onto it. Some members of the Phantom orchestra in Toronto stayed with this show for the whole ten year run.
Best moment you’ve ever seen on stage?
One of the best moments I have seen on stage was watching Chita Rivera and Brent Carver interact in “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” on Broadway. Both were absolutely breath taking.
Everyone’s got an on-stage blooper. You must have one as well.
The biggest blooper I ever had to deal with was when I was conducing Phantom in Toronto. There is a part in the 2nd act when the Phantom shoots fireballs from his cane which is totally choreographed so nothing could go wrong. During this particular show, the fire ball hit the other leading man’s wig which caught on fire. I kept conducting as I watched our Christine grab a blanket and put the fire out. As they say “the show must go on”.
Any regrets taking this particular career path?
I have no regrets in taking the career path that I did. When I was at UBC , I was spending 7 hours or more in a practice room by myself getting ready for recitals etc which is a very solitary life. Now, after 25 musicals, I am very happy to have been surrounded by people who love and are passionate about what they do as am I
What do you think of the theatre scene in Lethbridge?
I am very impressed with the theatre scene here in Lethbridge. There is a vast amount of talent here in all disciplines that I did not expect when I moved back here.
What advice would you give to anyone doing what you did?
My advice to anyone doing what I did, is to never give up and follow your passion because you never know where it will take you.
Top 5 musicals of all time.
My top 5 musicals of all time are “Into the Woods”, “ Miss Saigon”, “Chess”, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Ragtime”.
Top 5 musical songs of all time.
My top 5 musical songs are “No one is alone” (Into the Woods), “She’s a Woman” ( Kiss of the Spiderwoman) , “Never go back to Before” (Ragtime) , “Someone Else’s Story” (Chess),and “Move On” ( Sunday in the Park with George).
Is there a show you’d really love to do that you haven’t had the chance of doing?
The musical I would really love to do that I haven’t had the chance to do is “Chess”
What’s next for you?
Next for me is “Titanic” here in Lethbridge when the Yates re- opens.