It’s hard to compose music (or produce any creative work, for that matter) without harboring aspirations—however irrational or delusional they may be—of grandiosity. Writing even the most modest student exercise doesn’t pass without hopes, conscious or not, of hearing the final product performed in the world’s great concert halls, and recorded for the benefit or posterity.
So it’s somewhat humbling for me to provide the music—part arrangements of popular songs, part original compositions and part shameless borrowing from other works that encroaches on unabashed plagiarism—for Barbarian Production’s upcoming Two Gentlemen of Verona. Indeed, this music can only be performed in a 1940s-themed production of Two Gents (with the specific director’s cuts).
The music for Two Gents will consist of three Big Band era classics to which we’ve bought the licensing rights: Oh! Look at Me Now; New York, New York; and My Funny Valentine. I am also adding short interludes between scenes, and brief moments of underscoring, all written solely for voice and piano. While the total amount of music is not likely to exceed twenty minutes, creating the music for over a dozen passages scattered across two hours of drama requires an enormous amount of planning. This planning can become just about comically erratic when I discuss it with Kate, my friend and the show’s acting director who, despite not being able to read a single note of music, is as insistent and specific in her musical requests as she is with the actors!
Two Gents‘ set is ambitious and at times hilarious. When some scene changes demand lowering a skyscraper, turning a street lamp into a tree, or erecting a balcony, the interludes for scene changes must be flexible in their duration to accommodate variations in the time it takes to transform the stage from Verona to Milan, or a Duke’s palace to a grimy back-alley. Even the shortest of such musical interludes must represent the level of energy of the end of the previous scene and the beginning of the next, and provide a convincing link between the two, all while maintaining a stylistic and thematic relation to the dramatic setting. Two Gents must proceed smoothly from one scene to the next, maintaining the cohesion that is central to a performance’s overall dramatic effectiveness.
No pressure, then.
Kate has asked me to write the music in the Big Band style; to that end, she gave me an extensive list of required listening/viewing for the holiday (mostly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, Cole Porter musicals, and the odd home video of her 92-year-old grandfather playing the piano). With Big Band the basis of my accompaniment, I couldn’t resist letting some of the chromatic richness of bebop slip into my score—the richness of the harmonic language necessary, in my opinion, to fill in some of the dryness resulting from the sparseness of a single piano.
I’ve taken as my stylistic model a somewhat unusual but nevertheless appealing work: a cabaret art song by William Bolcom, Toothbrush Time, which, like Frank Sinatra’s recording of New York, New York, was produced in New York City in 1979 in a retrospective style. Toothbrush Time, oddly enough, humorously portrays the coolly detached regret a woman feels the morning after a romantic liaison–I’ll leave it to audience members to decide whether or not that makes for an appropriate commentary on the play’s action.
Finally, I’ve incorporated recurring motifs as often as possible. In the interludes this mainly takes the form of the three songs used in the show, but I have also added a simple two-note theme consisting of somewhat dissonant chords. This short but dark-sounding motif will represent the climactic dramatic episode of the play (no, I won’t give it away. Buy your ticket!), foreshadowing what’s to come during the more sinister moments within the comedy. With any luck, then, the musical accompaniment of Two Gents will provide a cohesive frame in which the drama can thrive unencumbered by rough edges.
Now that I’ve outlined the whirl of relationships, processes and communication that are going into the play’s incidental music, you can listen for the smallest hint of ‘oh what a beautiful morning’ when we yank back our moon on a string and replace it with sunshine.
Zalman Kelber is the music director and pianist Barbarian Productions’ The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to be performed May 2nd-5th in Christ Church Cathedral Gardens. Tune in next time when the director interviews the late William Shakespeare, and for more information about Two Gents visit their website, www.barbarian-productions.com, or follow them on twitter @twogentsox