Composer Porn

The Last Session-London Music Director Thomas Turner with composer/lyricist Steve Schalchlin
If it's not officially registered in the Book of Mormon as a sin, it outta be.

To sit in a room with a ridiculously talented stranger who's singing and playing your music at you. Thomas Turner has a reedy, affecting tenor and seems incapable of singing without meaning it.

It shows in his playing, too. He has genuine soul.

Our job, this day, was to run through the Sam French (which licenses plays and musicals) score of The Last Session, talk about some of the moments and make a few corrections. And also, to insert new piano arrangements which I have recently completed.

We also discussed the casting. It seems we are getting all our first choices. I can't say anything official yet. We'll wait till after the Olympics. Plus, all the paperwork needs to be completed, etc.

But what I can tell you is that the experience of sitting and listening to someone sing your songs at you is just the greatest and most terrifying thing -- for both parties. They're always so afraid of doing something "wrong" or badly. And I never even think in those terms. All I ever care about is whether they are meaning it. 

Do you see what I mean? Even if this person doesn't have the greatest of voices, I'd rather hear that person than someone who can nail every note, but who isn't fully embodying the song itself. This is not opera. Technique is a consideration, but it's secondary in the overall scheme of things. Or should be. Maybe even in opera. 

However, when you have someone who has a truly beautiful instrument -- and who has spent many years developing that instrument -- and who is a gifted actor, there's nothing like it. Everything is transcended. 

Anyway, that's what we did. I snapped a picture of us, above.


MORE INFO:

I've been asked to write a more fleshed-out version of how the score came to be. And what specific things we were looking at -- and why we were making any changes at all. So, this is long, but it's informative. For aspiring composers and playwrights, here's how this show score got put together.

Let's start by saying that I didn't sit on a hilltop with quill and a piano, and write it down, note for note. As a matter of fact, at the time I had never really written any music down. In the pop world, where I come from, you don't write out a score. You make a demo. In fact, in L.A. and Nashville, writing out the song is a pointless exercise. If you don't have a demo, you don't have a song. 

I could read music, but it's like being a person who can understand Spanish but not be able to speak it.

So, how can it be that a person can have a musical and yet not be able to write it down? Let's walk down that path a bit. 

First of all, this was 1997 and, in case you're new around here, I didn't write these songs to be in a show. I wrote them as musical therapy. Writing them kept me alive. I was barely able to hold my head off the pillow, sometimes sleeping for days at a time. A "musical" was the last thing on my mind. Mostly because I didn't come from that world. I was a pop songwriter.

When Jim wrote the book, and we did our first workshops, the cast members and I just made up the harmonies on the spot. I was playing and singing. We were more like a band than a show cast.

This tradition carried forward into New York to Off-Off-Broadway where the new producers asked me for the vocal arrangements. Vocal arrangements? You mean we can't just jam? No. This was no longer a workshop.The actors actually need to know what you want them to sing. In professional theater, you can't just say, "Here. Make it up."

I did, at the time, have some rudimentary charts written. (No computer score writing program was available). They looked like something a 6th grader might write out, but they did reflect, for the most part, the basic songs.

I don't think I had ever even seen a Broadway show score, much less knew how to write one out. Luckily, they hired Michael Gaylord, who did a spectacular job for not a lot of money. In fact, at the time, he might have even done it for free, hoping it would move on so that he could get paid later. 

As for the piano, the main instrument in the show, when we cast Bob Stillman, a Princeton/Julliard graduate and Broadway veteran who can sing and play circles around just about anyone in this city, and who is a songwriter in his own right, we sat together going through the songs, and listened to the demos I had recorded.

I would show him what I played and he would "get it." But he was essentially playing the songs as I had written them. He also improvised intros and little musical moments. Eventually, these extras became set in stone. 

Still, with all that, when the actors sang the score, they had permission to also improvise. Bob would play different things every night. The singers sang as any rock band might sing. Absolutely live. It's one of the aspects that makes the show so believable. They might be "playing" a band, but they really WERE a band! 

But, over time, Bob had begun adding a level of sophistication that was beautiful, but felt kind of wrong to me. I didn't know how to articulate it. But it felt less like Steve and more like Bob. And I'm not criticizing Bob here. He would often ask me if I liked something, and I would more or less assent. 

What he didn't know was that I felt intimidated by his, well, awesomeness. And I had no experience dealing with this.

Anyway, we moved up from Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway and hired John Kroner as musical director.

At the first new rehearsal, I heard all my chords back in place. Like, out of the blue. So I nudged John and asked him what was happening. He said, "I listened to your demos and I liked those chords better." I said to him, "Oh. I thought I had played those chords because those were the only chords I actually COULD play." He said, "Hey man, you're better than you think you are. Have a little confidence."

Again, Bob never did anything wrong. He was totally asking me and I was encouraging him. Trouble is, I was too timid to say anything. And wouldn't have had the words, even if I had.

When Sam French came around, offering to license the show, they needed a whole score. By then, the cast members were so familiar with the material, every night was a new night. Once again, everyone looked at me and I felt like a complete idiot. Plus, how do you capture something like that on paper, when it's never the same show twice? I suddenly understood all the Deadheads, taping every show.

And that's kinda how this problem got solved. They taped a show and hired someone to listen to it and transcribe everything he heard, including Bob's improvisations and any particular riffs the singers sang. And THAT is what got frozen onto the page. I remember, at one point, wanting to make a correction to something, and was told that, no, Sam French wanted exactly that performance. Or maybe I imagined someone said that. I don't know. It was all very confusing. I was totally overwhelmed by the process.

A score was printed.

Later, after I didn't die, I was asked to perform the role of Gideon. It was my first time to really confront the score as a musician. Well, over the several years, in schools and in colleges and universities, I had sung and played these songs, solo, thousands of times -- and I now had more specific piano arrangements. I was more aware of what I was doing.

And I began writing out the music. Writing out what I was actually playing. At first, it was really hard. But, slowly, I was figuring it out. 

One of the songs I changed significantly was "At Least I Know." I changed the piano rhythm almost entirely. We had changed it, already, when the show moved from New York to L.A. To a more rockabilly style. 

So, now the score has totally new piano arrangements for "Save Me A Seat," "Going It Alone," and "At Least I Know" and we've eliminated the vocal improvisations. I just told Thomas to let the singers find their own improvisations. 

I am so excited, now. I hope they are able to record a new cast album.
1 comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Stopette History Lesson From "What's My Line?"

Hal Block Blows It.

A Letter From Ethel Merman's Son.