Author: Stuart Miller
Date: December 9, 2011
Unexpected musicians — Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard — flavor a new crop of plays on Broadway.
As The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s debut Broadway play, begins, we hear the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. accompanied by a trumpet, a lone horn singing with an elegiac yearning.
Those notes did not come easy.
The music was written by Branford Marsalis, best known as a saxophone player, former “Tonight Show” bandleader, jazz composer and recording artist. But he’s part of a new generation of composers and musicians bringing their talents to Broadway, not by writing showstoppers for musicals but by making subtler additions to straight plays.
Established musical-theatre composers like Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family) and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) have added their touches to plays like The Farnsworth Invention (Lippa) and The Winter’s Tale (Kitt). But now big names from beyond the theatre industry — Marsalis, Alicia Keys and Terence Blanchard — are writing what has traditionally been called “incidental music.” (That term is tricky — the musician Stew, who recently wrote a score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, refused to be interviewed for this article because he found the phrase trivializing.)
“I’ve been thinking more about the feel of each play,” says director Kenny Leon, who is working with Keys on Stick Fly after having recruited Marsalis for Fences and The Mountaintop. He decided to “throw the net wider” and pursue other types of musicians. “I think some of these composers haven’t done theatre only because nobody had asked.”
They may not be sitting home waiting for the phone to ring, but they are excited when it does. “I’m not seeking this out, but if the right person calls, I’m interested,” says Lippa, for whom the right people were Farnsworth playwright Aaron Sorkin and director Des McAnuff.
Blanchard says that after he read the script of The Motherf**ker with the Hat, which producer Scott Rudin sent him, his reaction was, “Can I start right now?” He is also working on the forthcoming multiracial-cast revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Blair Underwood. Blanchard says he felt, as a New Orleans native and black musician, “it was extremely important and a huge honor to be part of it.” He hopes to convey the city’s flavor and culture, something he felt the movie failed to capture.
Their songs are usually the stars, but these musicians have little trouble subsuming their egos for the good of the play. “I want the music to complement the play,” Keys says. “Mine shouldn’t be the loudest voice.”
“I love when plays use music in cinematic ways…instead of just transitions,” says Lippa, though he adds, “What made me so happy with Farnsworth was that nobody really noticed the music.”
Blanchard goes even further, saying, “My manager and agent will strangle me, but I prefer people didn’t even know that I’m the composer on these shows.”
The musicians are also thrilled to be tackling new creative challenges. Keys, who grew up going to Broadway with her mother, dreams of writing a musical, but jumped at the chance to work on Stick Fly. “I want to do things that take me out of my comfort zone,” she says. (She is also one of the producers of the play.)
Blanchard echoes Keys, saying, “Going outside my realm inspires me.” (For Motherf**ker, he created more electronic and ambient sound than what one might expect from a trumpeter.)
The process itself is an education. Marsalis says that with Fences, he started writing the music while on tour, but Leon urged him to see Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in rehearsal. He grumbled a little, but rearranged his schedule to fly in to New York. “When I did, I realized the music [in the later part of the play] was all wrong — the emotions were based on how I felt about the play from reading it, but the emotional template of the music had to match that of the actors,” he says. “I started rewriting it on the plane ride right afterward.” The effort paid off in the form of a 2010 Tony nomination for Best Original Score, a category historically reserved for musicals.
Their success with Fences led Leon and Marsalis to their Mountaintop collaboration. But it too had its problems to solve. Marsalis says his first try with the Mountaintop music sounded like a theme from a spy movie. “At first I thought it was great, but the more I listened to it the more it sucked,” he says.
Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier suggested Marsalis try something sparser. Marsalis wanted it to revolve around the trumpet, to reflect King’s clarion call for justice. (He’s not the first to have latched on to this symbol: a collection of King speeches is titled “The Trumpet of Conscience,” an acclaimed biography is “Let the Trumpet Sound.”) “I woke up the next morning and said, ‘That’s it, it has to be a trumpet and nothing else but a bass pedal.’”
Adds Marsalis, “I listened to and listened to Aaron Copland’s ‘Quiet City’ and over time, my melody just wrote itself.”
There was one final piece to the puzzle: the part needed a performer. Marsalis asked director Leon if it was okay to give this gig to his brother, who would go uncredited. In this case, a little nepotism seemed justified. “As soon as he asked, I said, ‘Sure,’” Leon says. “I was thrilled to have Wynton play the part.”