At just 21 years old, Zac Johns plays a pivotal role in the latest production of Evita.

You won't see Johns on stage, though. He is one of the country's youngest musical directors and, from the orchestra pit, conducts 14 musicians, six backing vocalists and 40 actors. He describes the job as "driving the bus" and a privilege.

Johns was just 3 years old when his grandmother, Jean, took him along to the musical theatre shows she was acting in or working behind the scenes on. He would help make cups of tea and, as he got older, sit next to the pianists and turn the pages of their music.

He remembers seeing Annie and being enchanted by the character Daddy Warbucks and then, aged 9, starting to learn the piano, which he quickly picked up: "I did put in lots and lots of work, though."


Fast forward 12 years and Johns, a former Dilworth School pupil, is one of New Zealand's rising musical stars.

In the final stages of his degree in contemporary composition from the University of Auckland, his work with Evita is the latest in a string of such jobs. Johns' compositions have already been performed by the NZ Trio and workshopped by the Auckland Philharmonia and NZ Symphony Orchestras.

He has also worked on shows like Mamma Mia, Godspell, Bugsy Malone and In the Heights and was MD for the NZ premiere of the musical Dogfight. He's also been involved with a number of fundraising concerts and says he slowed down completion of his degree so he could combine studies with work experience.

"I enjoy being involved with theatre because it's such an immersive world and I love being in the moment and feeling the connection when the musicians in the pit, the actors on the stage and the audience comes together and everything just clicks."

In a small way, Johns' own life mirrors the tale told in Evita about Eva Peron, who rose from a humble background to become first lady of Argentina. Johns was raised by his grandmother and won a scholarship to Dilworth School where his teachers recognised his talent.

At 17, he was musical director for the school's production of Godspell, winning the Auckland Secondary School Production Competition, Showdown, for his work: "That was against lots of teachers! Did they mind? Well, my teachers didn't ..."

Johns says he accepts it might take a few days for some to adjust to him when they're used to people several decades older but he tries to lead by example through having a strong work ethic but bringing fun and enjoyment to the job.

"A lot of the shows I work on involve people who come from a community theatre background and have 9-5 jobs, but give up their free time to be involved with these productions and do something they love," he says. "There has to be a balance between the professionalism and strong work ethic needed and having some fun."

He began work on Evita, with fellow musical director Mark Bradley and director Richard Neame, several months ago and says a highlight was seeing the Wellington production.

"I was absolutely pumped watching that and just thought, 'when can we get cracking on this!'"