It depends very much on the ability of your cast and musicians. Generally - if you've a good confident cast and good musicians then do it live. Even just one good piano player adds a presence you don't get from tapes (of course you could have a mixture of piano for some numbers and tapes for others and get the best of both worlds!) Good live musicians can also speed up/slow down and cover for errors too. However if you're not sure about how good your people are, consider these points:
One final point in favour of live musicians: if they are any good, they can play in different keys to suit your cast. Most of the backing tracks are only available in my original keys. (However nearly everyone manages to fit around my original keys somehow - and those that claim they can't fit the key at all quite often turn out to be unable to sing in ANY key. Can't blame me for that!)
USE MP3 or CD Some people still use cassettes for backing tracks. Not only is the quality slightly weaker, but you can miss the start. Worst of all is starting the music halfway through the intro and the cast miss it! CD's let you quickly jump to the exact start of a track. MP3 files are excellent providing your operator has cued them up properly. If you're playing them off an ipod or other little player, it's all too easy to select the wrong track from the tiny screen!
MAKE SURE THE CAST CAN HEAR THE MUSIC Nearly every problem from using backing tracks comes from the cast not being able to hear the music properly. If you have the speakers for the music at the front of the stage and the cast behind them, they will hardly be able to hear. It's no good shouting for them to sing up because on stage it will smother the music they are trying to sing along to. They will naturally sing softer so they can hear the music, and then you'll have to turn the music down so you can hear them, and then they'll sing even softer... and so on. The simplest solution is to put your speakers to the rear of the stage - which also pumps the cast up a bit! If your speakers HAVE to be at the front, you need an extra "foldback" speaker at the back for the cast to hear.
MAKE SURE THE VOLUME IS TURNED UP A simple common mistake - the sound operator starts the track playing, but no sound comes out because the volume has been turned down. Even if the volume is turned up immediately, you've probably clipped the first few seconds of the intro - and this is almost guaranteed to throw even the best cast.
It's fair to say that even the very finest productions in the world have been sabotaged by microphones - especially the dreaded "radio mike". The biggest tip is: if you can manage without them then DON'T USE THEM!
The most reliable solution If your venue is biggish or echoey or your lead singer is very soft, then your audience should be allowed to hear the words. Therefore at its simplest and most foolproof, you just need one microphone with a cable attached to an amplifier. Whoever is singing solo grabs the microphone, sings, and puts it back. Nobody these days is too worried that somebody in the 16th century is crooning down a Shure SM58! Unless you REALLY know what you're doing, that's far better than trying to fool everyone that Henry VIII can sing unaided when in reality he's got a dodgy little radio mike hidden on his costume. Any or all of these things typically happen: a nearby mini cab's radio cuts in and bursts over the loudspeakers, the transmitter isn't strong enough (or the battery is flat) and you get a loud whistling windy noise, or the little radio mike disappears down Henry's costume and all the audience can hear are his stomache noises.
(True story: I was once watching a superb production of FAWKES in which Dorothy has a rather poignant solo to do in "The Girl That Never Was". A tiny microphone had been discretely pinned to the edge of the frock around her cleavage, but in getting up she had accidently tugged the cable to the transmitter box. The microphone had slid down inside the dress and nestled itself comfortably where it could pick up nothing but the resonant boom of the actress's heart. Poor Dorothy was being walled up alive and singing about joining the angels, and yet the audience were fighting back tears of laughter - and I'm ashamed to say that included myself. )
Microphone stands - can be a nuisance. First of all- make sure it isn't going to suddenly collapse! Old mike stands (or ones that have not been properly tightened) are a serious liability unless you want some embarrassed laughter. Furthermore, if someone has to quickly grab or replace a microphone, you can get a lot of fumbling if they haven't had a bit of practice. What's worse, if the microphone is left "live" on the stand all the time, it can pick up loud vibrations from the floor - footsteps, scenery moving and so on. Hint: Instead of leaving the microphone on a stand, have a chair with a cushion handy. It's easy to put down or pick up the mike, and you don't get vibration noises.
If for any reason French's are unable to help you then you can contact me atLINKS:
To my SHOWS page You can hear some samples from the songs and music here.
To Kjartan's C.V. This includes details which you may use in programmes or other publicity.