Branford Marsalis, the three-time Grammy-winning saxophonist-composer, was surprised the morning of May 4 when he learned that he had received a Best Original Score Tony Award nomination for the music he composed for the current, critically acclaimed and Tony-nominated revival of August Wilson’s Fences.
“You don’t expect it,” a modest Marsalis told Playbill.com the morning the nominations were announced. “When you decide you want to play jazz and you’re 20 years old living in New York, [you don’t think], ‘You know, one day, guys, I’m gonna get nominated for a Tony.’ It’s not part of the discussion, so it’s quite shocking.”
Marsalis’ competitors in his category include Adam Cork (music) and Lucy Prebble (lyrics), who were nominated for their score for another non-musical, the recently closed Enron; as well as Andrew Lippa for The Addams Family; and Memphis’ David Bryan and Joe DiPietro.
Marsalis, who has recorded 22 albums, says he has great respect for the creators of the more traditional musicals that are nominated “just because of the sheer volume of work that composers have to write for a [musical]. They have to write at least an hour of music, actually more than that, because you have the songs and then you have all the underpinning music — it’s a lot of music, it’s a lot of work.”
Marsalis adds, “I was surprised at the discussion, when they said they [were] thinking about amending the [Tony] rules to allow [the Fences score] to be considered. I went, ‘What!?’ It wasn’t even part of the process. When you’ve finished … a record, you’re like, ‘All right, this might get a Grammy nomination.’ It crosses your mind, [but it] never crossed my mind, that, ‘Wow, this [Fences] music might get nominated for a Tony.’ It just never crossed my mind.”
The jazzy music that Marsalis penned for the production, he explains, is “basically an emotional underpinning to either support the previously viewed scene or [act] as a prologue or preview to the upcoming scene.”
Now that he has a Tony nomination under his belt, would Marsalis consider writing a Broadway musical score? “When you think about the stuff that Gershwin wrote and Lorenz Hart and Hammerstein and Rodgers, they wrote these songs for these plays, and the songs are still being sung 60, 100 years later,” he says. “And, then you look at some of the modern plays and some people have been able to do that, but that would be the challenge: to write songs that have a certain kind of universal appeal in an era like ours now. It would be a hell of a challenge. If this opens the door to that, that would be awesome.”
He adds with a laugh, “But man, I’m gonna need a lot of time off to write that.”
Fences, which plays the Cort Theatre, was nominated for ten 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play. The production co-stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.