How to break the ice between contemporary classical composers and Broadway: A brief introduction to the music of Bob Kelly
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Egemen Kesikli *
Pendulum New Music Series is thrilled to present a mind-blowing concert on February 25 at the ATLAS Blackbox Theater! The concert, which will primarily focus on new electro-acoustic compositions, will proudly feature world-premieres by Nick Balderston, Aidan Patrick Cook, Hugh Lobel, and JP Merz, also featuring guest composer Cheryl Leonard. Do not miss it!
Now back to this month’s blog!
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A couple of weeks ago, I was incredibly fortunate to have chatted with the NYC based musical-theater composer, pianist, and music director Mr. Bob Kelly. Originally from the Twin Cities, MN, Bob is a phenomenal young composer, as well as an active music director and accompanist, having recently served as the music assistant for the Broadway-bound musical Amazing Grace. He and I chatted about the contemporary Broadway scene, musical theatre world today, and as always, his influences.
E: Most contemporary classical composers like me, although we do have a Musical Theatre department at the CU College of Music, are not acquainted with the recent Broadway musical scene. Would you like to give some brief background on it, and what the contemporary musical is like today? What are some trends and styles; and how do they influence your music?
B: Contemporary musical theatre is quite varied. On Broadway, you will see mainly tourist fare– the latest Disney musical, or other film adaptations. The purpose is to make the music accessible to as many people as possible; you don’t want the tourists to be scared away. This results, oftentimes, in scores that rely heavily on pastiche. And then, more on the fringes, you can find emerging composers presenting their music in cabarets– smaller venues like 54 Below or Joe’s Pub. There might be a night of a single composer’s or writing team’s work, or a more generally themed night where various writers will present material. This type of exposure, fostered by YouTube, has been growing and has very enthusiastic audiences. Some writers to check out include Adam Gwon, Joe Iconis, and Kerrigan-Lowdermilk.
There’s a danger to the cabaret circuit for writers though– when you’re writing a lot of these stand-alone songs, you can get pigeon-holed as that kind of a writer– just story songs, not necessarily (or evidently) within the context of a show. There’s nothing wrong with these sorts of stand-alone songs, per se; they can be really great. But making a big splash with a single hit song isn’t the same as making a big splash with a hit show. Alternatively, there are a lot of new, very adventurous shows happening at smaller theaters off-Broadway. A lot of really exciting composers doing really experimental things, mixing genres and doing things with the form that are really challenging and really new. I think that’s where I would like to see myself– more in these experimental environments where you’re not going to make sense of the material if it’s presented out of context; the material is really determined by the overall dramatic setting, story, character, etc., and the way it’s staged. A recent example is Dave Malloy and his show Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which ran Off-Broadway for quite a while. There was a mixture of electronic, pop, rock, and classical music; really, anything and everything was used to tell the story.
More broadly, I think musical theatre writers of my generation continue to be greatly influenced by Stephen Sondheim, and more recently Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, and Michael John LaChiusa.
E: If I didn’t misunderstand what you are talking about, what you’re saying is, pastiche in musical theater is considered a “lower” sort of thing, because it’s becoming even bigger? Not pastiche, sorry, eclecticism, I think would be a better word for this. Or maybe I should distinguish or try to understand better what you’re saying with what pastiche is and how you’re describing it. You were sort of using those two words interchangeably, or did I misunderstand?
B: I think I meant the terms in a different sense. Pastiche being, you’ll hear a score that sounds like 1950s music and that’s what the whole score is; and that’s not anything surprising or new. Whereas the eclecticism of Dave Malloy is actually where you’re going to be hearing elements put together in a way you hadn’t heard before, so it can be very original and creative.
E: I see. Let’s talk about your music. Not only influences but what kind of projects you’ve been working on.
B: I’ve been recently working on a full-length show with bookwriter/lyricist Sam Chanse called gilgamesh & the mosquito. It’s a mash-up of different storylines. It’s narrated by a mosquito, who has discovered that he’s fated to kill off his own species. We also meet his creator, a biotech scientist named Toni. She and her husband Kamil are expecting a child, but the child has tested positive for Down Syndrome. Meanwhile, Kamil is a professor of ancient studies at a university, where he teaches the epic of Gilgamesh. So the epic of Gilgamesh is also brought to life and musicalized. The overall theme of the piece is that all these different characters – fantastic, mythic and human – they are all trying to find a sense of ground beneath their feet – a certainty that the choices they are making are the right ones and that their lives have meaning. So there’s a very serious undertone beneath it, but at the same time a lot of humor on the surface of it. The music, I think, is a mix of things; some of it has that kind of contemporary, piano-driven musical theatre sound. A more unexpected element is that the music of Steve Reich had a strong influence on the score. His work came to mind when I was developing the score since I knew that there was a scientific setting, lots of talk about DNA, and these very cerebral main characters – the two humans are very intelligent people. They express themselves very articulately, so there are also a lot of speech patterns that are employed in the music and the melody lines.
E: Very cool. I remember you had this musical entitled Waiting, and it got performed in several places.
B: Yes. This song cycle was something I wrote as a senior at St. Olaf College with Kelly Pomeroy. We had it produced there by the student theater group. Following that, there was a small theater company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, The World’s Stage Theatre Company, that got interested in the show. They put up a production in the spring of 2013 in Milwaukee, and then took that production to the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City for a week-long run. The song cycle was my first foray into musical theater writing, which is a common kind of form to write in for an emerging songwriter – you don’t have the burden of writing a book, which is probably the hardest part of writing a musical. In a song cycle, you can just present the songs and tell an overall story, and just show off your skills as a songwriter. We’re still very proud of the piece. We’re happy we did it.
E: I’m going back to Gilgamesh and the Mosquito. This was performed in New York?
B: We had an equity reading a year ago, and since then have been working on rewrites. Recently, we presented a staged ten-minute excerpt as part of a festival. Coming up this summer, we will be presenting a workshop-production through NYU as part of a program called CDP, which is a collaboration between the graduate musical theater writing program (which I graduated from) and the undergrad acting program at Tisch. We’ll have a director, music director, staging, and (minimal) costumes and sets. So we’re pretty excited about this stage in the piece’s development.
E: Awesome. I want to ask you a couple of questions about your thoughts on the differences between classical contemporary and musical theatre composers.
B: I think it would be great if the more experimental musical theatre composers got more exposure. There are a lot of daring composers writing for the theatre, featuring challenging subject matter and really interesting music. The composer Joshua Schmidt has gotten notice in recent years for his show Adding Machine, an adaptation of the expressionist play by Elmer Rice. The score is not traditionally melodic; Schmidt captures the angst of Rice’s dystopian world and its characters through pounding, thorny, groove-oriented music. The textures he creates are fascinating on their own; when paired with the drama of the story, the score really comes into vivid life. This more daring type of work deserves to reach an audience beyond that of traditional musical theatre.
E: How are classical contemporary composers viewed from the perspective of contemporary musical theatre composers?
B: I think the difference sometimes lies in the fact that a lot of contemporary musical theatre composers have one foot in the songwriting world, whether that be folk, pop, rock, or whatever; and the other foot is in the more classically-trained composer world (in the fact that notation is important in musical theatre, and we’re relying on live performance rather than a studio production). To play devil’s advocate, there are many instances of commercial Broadway productions featuring a composer or writing team that doesn’t do the heavy lifting of realizing the score in notated form; they will instead hire arrangers and music directors to actually realize their music, and effectively translate it for performers. But for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll limit my definition of contemporary musical theatre composers to those with academic training and notational know-how.
Another important distinction is that for the musical theatre composer, all musical decisions must ultimately serve the story that the writing team is trying to tell. I think that usually a musical theatre composer wants a general audience to be able to appreciate their show, even if the audience doesn’t have the most sophisticated musical understanding. If the score is successfully working alongside the other elements of the production to tell the story in the clearest way possible, than I think an audience will be on board, even if the music is of a genre or style that they would not normally care for.
In the end, though, I think both types of composers, contemporary classical and musical theatre, are after the same thing– trying to attain the highest level of craft in what they’re doing.
E: How difficult is it to balance making a score accessible but also fulfilling your “ego” as a composer who wants to do what he or she wants?
B: I know of several composers who have run into that– having the idea that you want to impress people, and show them that you can write this really difficult, complex music. And that’s a journey I’ve been on, as well; I had a phase where I felt that I constantly needed to be writing this dense material, and just pack every moment with content; I guess to prove that I had things to say. But over time I realized, especially due to conversations and feedback from faculty advisers, my writing partners, and classmates, that in a theatre setting, it’s difficult to take a lot in at once (as far as the density of the material goes). This is especially true because in a musical, you also have the textual (lyric) element, the visual element, etc. And I learned that there’s actually a lot of craft that goes into simplifying. Making the clearest, most deliberate musical choices can ultimately be much more effective, more artful, and can best serve the given dramatic moment.
B: Definitively. And how limiting is it to know that there’s a particular sort of audience, who can only handle certain things?
B: I think this probably has to do with what segment of the musical theatre world you’re writing for. For a commercial, Broadway-bound property, you really won’t have much leeway as far as more adventurous music, especially with producers being involved in creative decisions, and a lot of money riding on the show’s success. And those writers should know that that’s what they’re getting into. But there are definitely smaller, fringe audiences in the theatre world that are open to more experimental material. Their ears are ready for more adventurous stuff. I don’t think that there are enough musical theatre composers who are as daring as the majority of contemporary classical composers; I would love to see more of that in musical theatre.
E: I see. Can you name 3-5 musical theatre composers that contemporary classical composers should know about?
B: Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza; Floyd Collins), Joshua Schmidt (Adding Machine; A Minister’s Wife), Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Ghost Quartet), Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home; Caroline, or Change), Michael John LaChiusa (Giant, First Lady Suite).
E: Finale or Sibelius?
B: Finale. In the musical theatre world, it’s actually the dominant platform. I didn’t know that going in; I was just lucky.
Previously on this blog:
After Clendinning: “Ligeti Chord” as a Constructive Element in Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna
On Electro-acoustic music and ATLAS, with CU Composer JP Merz
* Egemen Kesikli is a first year Doctoral student in Composition at CU Boulder.
** I’d like to thank my dearest brother Erkinalp Kesikli for helping me with the transcription of the interview! It’s so time-consuming, and he’s been graciously helpful and supportive, as always.