May 2 & 3 it was at full speed, as I wanted everybody to know they’d a chance to see an hour that contained 19 songs, music and lyrics by me, brilliantly performed by 6 lovable lunatics under the sterling guidance of director Justin Boccitto. May 8 & 9, you’ve the opportunity to hear some incidental music I’ve written for a couple of straight plays. But the play’s the thing. Most of the audience will be unaware there was original music anywhere at all.
This therefore seems as good a time as any to say a little about the process of contributing music to non-musical plays. And a disturbing memory just popped up in my brain. The only time I collaborated on a musical in which I was responsible for just music and not lyrics, my collaborator, in a fit of pique, yelled at me “Let’s face it: This is not a collaboration. You are merely providing music for MY play.” To put too nice a spin on that, there was an implication that what had started as a musical had turned into a straight play with a large bunch of incidental songs, incidental dance music, and therefore I, as composer, was not an equal partner (any more) but his subordinate. My role was to support the drama.
There’s a true point buried within that. A musical is a collaborative expression of a librettist, composer and lyricist, all of whom must be considered equals. A straight play is, to a far greater extent, the expression of a playwright. Obviously, there’s a staff of artists who endeavor to support her vision: costumer, set designer, lighting designer and composer. Not to belittle what any of us do, I must say it’s a welcome change, every now and then, to not be the center of attention. I’m just another worker ant on the ant farm. If you come to Perfect European Man Monday, May 9, at the Jan Hus, you’ll walk away impressed by the author, DJ Salisbury, and might not even remember that, at one point, a character sang a music hall song which I composed. Warning: there’s full male nudity in the play, and if you’re offended by that sort of thing, stay home. (Many years ago, a good friend of mine took his not-too-culturally-savvy brother to a Terrence McNally play. When a naked man suddenly appeared, the brother reflexively registered his disgust, exclaiming “Oh my god” loud enough for all to hear.)
Sunday, May 8th at 8pm and Monday, May 9th at 2pm & 8pm, for free at Circle-in-the-Square, you can hear a larger amount of my music in a fully clothed production of The Cherry Orchard. (At least I think it’s fully clothed. I haven’t been to rehearsals. One can always hope.) For this, I dashed off some quick pieces for a violin or two, and wrote a little song that off-stage characters repeat incessantly in the distance. I had very little time to devote to this, and had to pass off much responsibility to the wonderful woman you’ll hear on first violin.
For Perfect European Man, I was presented with a lyric and told the time period and setting of the play. “Music Hall” was the description that would guide my compositional choices. A famous Music Hall entertainer is describing the actions of a famous wrestler. She, and the audience she’s singing to, admire his muscles, but the song is sung by a male actor who’s quickly transformed himself into a famous chanteuse. Is any of this making any sense? Well, there was enough information, within that, to suggest a harmonic palette. I knew I’d use dotted rhythms, as British Music Hall songs often do. I also knew that I’d make use of diminished seventh chords, and maybe a few sixths. I think of these as The Elements of Style.
When I’m accompanying improv shows, I never know what’s coming in terms of a scene’s setting. If the actors jump to Victorian England, I’m going to have to immediately play music of that time and place. Knowing those Elements of Style, I’ll instantly start putting together the sixths, the diminished, the dotted rhythms and other little sounds that color that setting for me. For this Music Hall song, I had time to think about these things. The lyric started with two words (Up jumped) that demanded a rising interval and I chose a major sixth. The word “jumped” I put on the third note of the scale, in part, because that note is something both a sixth chord and a diminished chord of the next highest root have in common. Sorry if this all sounds a little technical: I’m just trying to convey how many music-writing decisions suggested themselves to me. Setting, character, the lyric: all, in a sense, forced my hand.
To a great extent – larger than anyone’s giving it credit for – situation dictates compositional content. Chekhov calls for a lot of music in The Cherry Orchard. Characters sing snatches of songs, there’s a lullaby, and there are references to a “Jewish Orchestra” playing specific dances. Reading the play, and knowing a small amount of cultural history, I faced an interesting set of parameters. Once-wealthy people down on their luck suggests a certain refinement, along with the obvious melancholy. Russians were Francophiles, so I thought about adding touches of French flavoring. I don’t think these characters would have known the work of the famous composers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, so I avoided drawing on them. Thinking the only musician I’d get would be a violinist (eventually, a second materialized), my mind was filled with the harmonic schemes one associates with gypsy fiddlers, and Jewish folk music. Some lyrics are quoted, so, again, I had those to suggest rhythms. I also wrote a lyric that is supposed to be the sort of old sentimental song everyone knows and has something to do with how all things die, how all good things must come to an end. It’s called Nothing Can Last Forever, a minor-key waltz influenced by Sunrise, Sunset by Jerry Bock.
If only Anton Chekhov was available to discuss this with, like Perfect European Man‘s playwright was. Whenever I think of Chekhov, indeed, whenever I’m in Union Square, I always think of the time a set of pranksters took over Barnes & Noble and presented a “meet the author” event with a live, fake, but convincingly bearded Anton Chekhov that eventually moved to Union Square Park. A line formed so that the gullible could buy copies of The Cherry Orchard autographed right in front of their eyes. More about that on Page 74 of this e-book.