Music in the Theater

I’m writing this from Washington, DC, where I’ve just seen and heard a new production of Coyote Builds North America, one of my two music theater works with writer Barry Lopez.

Coyote was premiered in 1987 at Perseverance Theater. Since then, it’s been produced two other times, touring throughout Alaska and New England. Until now, I’ve always played an active role, as a percussionist and music director. But tonight, I was in the audience.

Not surprisingly, this gave me a new perspective on the piece and got me thinking about the differences between the music in the theater and the concert hall. The most obvious difference is story.

In the theater, the story is the primary metaphor from which the music grows. But how is the story told? What’s the role, if any, of singing? Of spoken text? How much of the story can be told without words?

Composers today are answering these and related questions in a startling variety of ways, creating vital new forms of music theater that – as Barry Drogin observes- as yet have no names.

In Coyote, a storyteller tells contemporary versions of traditional Native American stories, in English and (in the new production) a touch of Cree. But the stories are also told in instrumental music for a small chamber ensemble. My intention was for the music to do more than simply illustrate or amplify the language, to be an equally strong text that reveals different dimensions of the stories.

The ideal – from the ancient Greeks to Robert Ashley- is a perfect marriage of equals between music and story. Is this possible? Or, like most partnerships, is it a constant process of compromise, of give and take?

In addition to Coyote, my catalog includes two other evening- length theater works and a shorter musical play for children. Still, I’ve never thought of myself as "theater" composer. My primary concern has been the integrity of the music, and my own vision of the story.

It hasn’t always been easy for me to step back and allow a stage director, choreographer, lighting designer, set and costume designer, and other partners in a theatrical production team to make the piece their own.

But by its nature, theater demands collaboration. Working in the theater has challenged me – sometimes against my own nature- to become a better collaborator. Ultimately, I think it’s broadened and strengthened my work.

What are your perspectives and experiences with music in the theater?