Music from on high: How Branford Marsalis composed the moving sounds of Broadway's 'The Mountaintop'

Publication: New York Daily News
By: Greg Thomas
Date: Saturday, October 22, 2011

“The Mountaintop,” in a 16-week Broadway run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, has gotten attention for the star power of the lead actors — Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett — and for the portrayal of a more human, less iconic side of Martin Luther King Jr.’s personality.

According to the play’s composer, the saxophonist, bandleader and record label founder Branford Marsalis, that’s the way it should be.

“Here’s a good metaphor,” he proposes. “We had a talk with some students from the Brooklyn High School for the Arts after one of the previews. And Samuel Jackson came onstage, Angela Bassett came on, and the playwright Katori Hall came on. The kids didn’t ask me anything. That’s the apt metaphor because the music serves the purpose of accentuation or complement.

“Weak music can’t really kill a play. Weak acting can destroy a play, regardless of how good the music is,” Marsalis says.

“For instance, take Prokofiev’s score to the ballet based on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ It’s a fantastic piece of music, and a great ballet. If you put the ballet out there and they’re tripping all over themselves and dancing like crap, nobody’s going to say, ‘That ballet really sucked, but the music was really good.’ They’re going to say, ‘That ballet sucked — period.’ “

In his first Broadway role, Jackson acts the part of Dr. King after he gave the famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Jackson was a student at Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, at the time. He served as an usher at King’s funeral and flew to Memphis right after to march with the black sanitation workers on whose behalf King was fighting for a livable wage.

Bassett is a mysterious chambermaid named Camae. She gives a powerful soliloquy at the close of the play that Marsalis uses to give a momentary feel of a musical, in which the music and narration occur simultaneously. The show conjures video images of a future King never would see.

Marsalis based the ensemble music — bass, drums and saxophone — on Bassett’s cadence.

“The music starts off slow and picks up speed, and gets quicker and quicker, and her cadence gets faster and faster, and the images come faster and faster,” he says. “It’s a good effect.”

Cadence, which in Western music refers to characteristic rhythmic patterns, is an important concept that Marsalis uses to explain the difference between Hall’s approach as a playwright and August Wilson’s. The late Wilson is notable for his cycle of plays that dramatize black American life in the 20th century.
Kenny Leon, the director of “The Mountaintop,” also directed the Emmy Award-winning revival of Wilson’s “Fences” in 2010. Leon asked Marsalis to compose the music for “Fences,” too.

In comparing Hall’s and Wilson’s styles, Marsalis explains: “What I don’t do when I look at plays — or even when I watch movies or read books — is to assume that a play with black characters is a ‘black’ play. Katori’s themes are universal themes.

“When August Wilson wrote plays, the characters have universal traits, but they are black American plays because the cadence is black American. Even though we’re talking about the proto-Negro in Martin Luther King, and Katori writes from a black perspective, the cadence is far more universal.

“She wrote an article in The New York Times in August about a reading of ‘The Mountaintop’ in Russian, in Moscow. The audience loved it. I think the audience would be much more confused at a Russian translation of an August Wilson play because so much of it is based in black American cadence and rhythm.”

For “Fences,” Marsalis tapped into the sounds of R&B and jump blues saxophone players such as Red Prysock, Sil Austin and Gene Ammons to typify the kind of music the main characters in Pittsburgh would have listened to back in the 1950s.

“The Mountaintop” was a much harder climb.

“I had to a lot more musical research in my brain than I had to do for ‘Fences,’ ” he says.

At first, he designed the opening theme to be played on violin with orchestral accompaniment.

“But the more I heard it, the dumber that sounded. The opening theme then went from that to the instrument that most represents Martin Luther King: the trumpet,” Marsalis says.

“He spoke of trumpets oftentimes in his speeches. There are two seminal books on Dr. King. One is called ‘Parting the Waters,’ the other one is ‘Let the Trumpet Sound.’ I started thinking, what piece would work well, what would be a template for how I wanted to write the theme? I started thinking … Miles Davis. Then Aaron Copland’s ‘Quiet City,’ which features a duo between a trumpet and an English horn, came to mind. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

“So I started listening to ‘Quiet City’ for hours a day, day in, day out. And then the melody gradually came to me. I was on my way to the airport and I called Kenny and said: ‘I got it. It’s all trumpet. No orchestral accompaniment of any kind, just a drone and a trumpet melody.’

“And I knew that the only person I wanted to play it was Wynton.”

Wynton Marsalis, Branford’s younger brother by a year, came from a lecture at Harvard, strolled into a recording studio and knocked out the theme in five minutes.

“I was on the road in Seattle at the time, sitting by the phone. They called and said it was fantastic. But Wynton called and said, ‘If you want me to do it again, I’ll do it.’ I said, “If you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t have left the studio. And if you like it, I love it.’ I eventually heard it, and it’s beautiful.”

How does he describe the opening theme?

“It had to be majestic because the character is a majestic figure. It also had to have a sense of mystery, which is why it has that low rumble drone in the end. And there’s a modulation in the melody, which gives it a slight wrinkle that people wouldn’t expect.

“On the keyboard, when you have the combination of a white key and the black key right next to it, that’s a minor second. That sound creates a discomfort that you can use to create a sense of dread and a sense of foreboding.

“Everybody coming in to see the play, just about, will know what the Lorraine Motel is, what it represents, and they know what’s going to happen. So the music can be used to create a sense of foreboding, but in a beautiful way.”

But Marsalis says his intent for the theme is a secondary consideration.

“I simply wanted to do what’s most effective for the play.” he says. “As a musician, you just have to understand what your role is in the situation. Sometimes musicians get so wrapped up in their music, they only think of themselves and what they’re playing, not the context. I’m convinced that everybody involved in the play — from stage design, special effects, lighting, actors and director — are going to do what they think is in the best interest of the work.”

Submitted by Ben on October 24th, 2011 — 09:54am

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