One Monday afternoon in early 2017, the young Scottish pianist Ryan MacKenzie – then in his third year at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – was rehearsing with East Ayrshire Youth Theatre, for their forthcoming production of High School Musical, when his phone rang. It was Cameron Mackintosh. “He said they needed someone to sight-read Keys 1 in Mary Poppins tomorrow in Zurich. The original pianist was ill, and I’d been recommended,” Ryan recalls. “I was on the next plane.” Barely had his feet touched the tarmac before he was in the pit, tackling the smash-hit, multi-award-winning Disney/Mackintosh musical, before carrying through a two-week run. It’s no routine or workaday part, either, as Ryan observes: “Mary Poppins is like the Rach 3 of musical theatre,” he says. “Absolutely massive, and horrifically difficult – but there was no way I was turning it down.”
Fast forward to October 2018, and MacKenzie is airborne by his trouser-seat again, this time in the back of a London taxi with A-list celeb Pixie Lott, who’s singing a brand-new song into his ear, while he scribbles out accompaniment. They’re en route to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where Pixie has just decided to debut the song at tomorrow night’s star-studded royal gala concert, Time Flies: 100 Years of the RAF. They arrive, and work out the arrangement, just Pixie and piano: it comes together.
Also on the bill and in the building, however, are the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, as well as The Kingdom Choir (from Meghan and Harry’s wedding) and the Band of the RAF Regiment. As rehearsals continue into the evening, Pixie decides around 10pm that, actually, the new song needs orchestra – and therefore orchestrating. In time to rehearse at 10 next morning. Once again, Ryan picks up the gauntlet. “I was only originally booked for the rehearsals,” he says. “I ended up transcribing, arranging and orchestrating this whole number, as well as playing in the actual concert. But it was the same as with Mary Poppins – I had nothing to lose. Both times were a major baptism of fire, but even in the worst-case scenario, it could only be a good thing to have given it a go. And I’m always up for a challenge.”
The high-end technical prowess and cross-genre creative fluency to back up this attitude are exactly what’s driven Ryan’s rapidly snowballing career since his student days, eventually resulting in his early graduation from the RCS, complemented by a Masters in Arranging and Orchestration from Boston’s fabled Berklee College. Even while studying, Ryan’s professional diary was consistently busy, with gigs as diverse as arranging folk-songs for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, accompanying Any Dream Will Do stars Lee Mead and Keith Jack, and playing piano in Gordon Greenberg’s Guys and Dolls and Joey McKneely’s West Side Story, both in the West End and on tour.
A key element in Ryan’s signature versatility is his background in folk music, alongside the classical and theatre fields: hailing from Scotland’s tradition-rich north-east, he’s an accomplished traditional fiddler as well as a pianist, who originally enrolled on the RCS’s pioneering folk degree course. After he switched to the broader BMus programme, tutors including Nadia Boulanger alumnus Norman Beedie, Irish trad-rooted pianist Mary McCarthy, folk/jazz innovator Hamish Napier, and jazz/fusion luminaries David Milligan and Euan Stevenson further expanded his range, as did regular accompanist work in the drama department.
“I’ve always mixed up different styles of music,” Ryan says. “Not as a conscious effort – it’s just kind of happened, by following what appeals to me musically. Classical training is obviously great for technical flexibility, but so is learning by ear, as I do on the fiddle. The traditional side also gives me a particular feel for overall musicality – ways of using harmony; where things go, and how they fit – which is about more than just playing the notes on the page.” Whatever his precise secret, or secrets, he’s not looked back since leaving college in mid-2017. That same summer, after Mary Poppins, he was musical director on renowned US vocal impressionist Christina Bianco’s UK tour, while autumn saw him working on the 30th anniversary revamp of Starlight Express, with Andrew Lloyd Webber himself and fellow showbiz legend Arlene Phillips.
Among an increasingly jam-packed schedule, 2018 highlights alongside Ms Lott included accompanying Les Misérables and Heathers star Carrie Hope Fletcher on her debut album, When the Curtain Falls, and MD-ing its London launch, plus musical direction/orchestration roles in West End Does: Bond, at Leicester Square Theatre and a major ‘In Conversation’ event with Les Misérables/Miss Saigon composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, also featuring John Owen Jones and Eva Noblezada. After reuniting with Bianco for her new show Life of the Party, followed by October’s Stages Musical Theatre cruise – also starring Michael Ball, Beverly Knight, and Lee Mead – Ryan went on to join the music team for Les Misérables’ latest international tour. Further recent credits include The Heart of Hollywood at the O2 in London, Britain’s Got Talent winner Jai McDowall’s Live at Zedel show, BBC’s Children in Need, Kids of the West End, Sondheim Unplugged and Pizza Express Live’s ‘Comparing Notes’ series. In amongst it all, Ryan keeps determinedly extending his creative horizons and skillset, latterly studying arranging with boundary-busting trombonist, composer, conductor and Guildhall professor Scott Stroman, famed via such variously august outfits as the London Philharmonic, OPUS 20 String Ensemble and London Jazz Orchestra. “The jazz tutoring I had at college gave me a whole new perspective on stuff like voicing, and the rules of harmony,” Ryan says, “and now working with Scott has completely changed how I think about things again: he’s just a ridiculous musician.”
While currently based in London, Ryan hasn’t lost touch with his roots, maintaining a keen interest in Scotland’s vibrant folk scene, as with his highly-praised contribution to award-winning singer Robyn Stapleton’s Songs of Robert Burns album, and earlier work with Orkney fellow fiddler Kristan Harvey. Since 2015, he’s also staged an annual Christmas benefit show back in his native Highlands, featuring seasonal big-band classics from a line-up of top young jazzers. Launched to support a friend’s fundraising, Let it Snow is now the area’s biggest Christmas event, selling out three nights in 2018, and donating all proceeds to a local Motor Neurone Disease charity.
“Above all, I love the variety in what I do,” Ryan says. “I feel very lucky with the opportunities I’ve had, just by being open to whatever comes along. I love how different types of work feed into each other and cross-fertilise, whether it’s techniques or ideas, or just being able to take a different approach. I definitely want to continue with this kind of mix, as it helps keep everything fresh, too: whatever I’m working on now is always the best thing ever.”