Saturday, March 23, 2013

Composing Music for Theatre

Once upon a time, I worked in the theatre. 

I'd like to think I still do.  Every once in a while I dip my toe back into it.  I definitely miss it, but my work as a novelist and film studies instructor and lecturer and freelance scribbler takes up 110% of my time these days. 

I majored in theatre, actually in Directing, to be precise, for at the University of Texas at Austin we could focus on specific disciplines--acting, playwriting, design... and I chose directing.  After I received my degree, I moved to New York City and did the off- and off-off and WAY off-off-off-off-Broadway thing for many years.  Besides directing numerous productions, I also composed music.  Usually, I collaborated with playwrights who had lyrics that needed tunes.  I began this process while I was in school and did a number of  musicals that followed me to New York. 

I loved the challenge of taking what was essentially a poem and making a song out of it.  I was the Elton John to the playwright's Bernie Taupin.  It came naturally to me, and although I haven't done it in a while, I'm sure I could easily slip back into the groove (anyone out there who needs music to their lyrics?). 

One of my better-known works (believe me, very few of my musicals were known at all!) was The Resurrection of Jackie Cramer.  This was an entirely-sung "rock opera" written by playwright Frank Gagliano.  I first met Frank at UT Austin, where he was a playwriting professor.  We wrote the first version of the piece in 1974-75, and it was performed at UT during the summer of '75 at the E. P. Conkle Workshop for Playwrights.  It was a crowd-pleaser, and the director, J Ranelli, made the effort to get a production going at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, where he was on the faculty.  He was successful, so I ended up taking the spring semester of 1976 off from school so I could be a "guest artist" at URI for a production of Jackie Cramer.  This led to a production off-off-Broadway at the New Dramatists Inc. a couple of months later.  Then it was done at West Virginia University, and, after I moved to New York, a couple more times in Manhattan, culminating in a big-budget (more or less) off-Broadway production that I directed myself.  Frank and I continued to re-write, add, delete, and mess with the script and music with each successive mounting of the piece.  It was always in a state of flux, but it always seemed to work, no matter what we'd added or taken away. 

Someday Frank and I want to "resurrect" Jackie Cramer.  We're not getting any younger.

Recently I put together a concert of some of my music.  I dragged out pieces from as far back as the 70s.  Here's a song from a musical called Deirdre that I wrote with the late playwright Norman Morrow.  The Right and Wrong Song   It's sung by the very talented front-ladies of the Chicago band, Honey and the 45s--Kristina Cottone and Kim Kozel. 

Music will always be a part of me and I'll always be thankful to the powers-that-be that I was blessed with a talent to play piano and compose. 

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