There’s No Business Like Show Business

Last fall, kicking around an idea for a musical, I stopped in at a local community theater, introduced myself, and said, in essence, “I have this show in mind about people going on diets. Here, let me play you some of the songs I’ve written for it.” Two weeks later, the theater replaced the show they’d planned, and committed to producing my show this spring, instead. We opened Diet! The Musical on April 20, 2007.

Imagine stopping by your local community orchestra office and saying something like, “I have this idea for an evening-length symphony. I’d like you to consider committing your orchestra to several weeks of intense work on my score, culminating in a performance that replaces your plan to do Beethoven’s Ninth.”

When you’ve stopped laughing, proceed.

The North Valley Playhouse picked up my show because there is a real need for new material in musical theater. After its premiere production at the community level, “Diet!” will be marketed to the hundreds of little theaters nationwide looking for new shows. Theaters are hungry for new musicals. Director after director has told me that the demand is far greater than the current supply. On the other hand, the orchestral repertoire is heavy with centuries of masterpieces, with sad results for living composers. If some hypothetical community orchestra were brave enough to premiere my Big Symphony, that would be it. “Premiere,” as we all know, often equals “final performance” in the shadowland of contemporary classical composition.

The concert hall and the theater are two poles of attraction for classical composers. I’ve danced around both, and the more I weigh my experiences against the satisfaction gained, the more I aim to spend my remaining years writing for the stage. The theater is the best place for me, and for any composer who needs to feel needed by performers, and appreciated by audiences.

Writing for the concert hall means waiting for a commission (probably for anconcert opener, if it’s an orchestral gig; maybe an unusual chamber combination if you’re lucky), writing the piece, and much later on hearing it played two or three times as a novelty, or as a warm-up to masterpieces of the established canon. Your overture, no matter how good, probably won’t have a chance with audiences against the Mozart concerto that follows it and that Schubert/Brahms/Tchaikovsky symphony after intermission.

Even when it fares well, entering the repertoire is as likely as winning the lottery. I wrote an overture called Fly! for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in 2004. It was handsomely performed several times by the orchestra under music director George Hanson, and well received by audiences. Hanson later took me aside and said it was the best-received overture of several commissioned that year. It has yet to be performed anywhere else. I’m sure most composers who have written works for orchestra have similar stories.

Performers are what classical audiences come to hear. You, the composer, are strictly secondary. I wrote my sole string quartet for a fairly low profile group that disbanded shortly after the piece was premiered. (To the best of my knowledge, my string quartet was not a factor in the ensemble’s demise.) At the premiere—and thus far only performance— I was asked to the stage to take questions from the audience. The first question set the tone: “What does it feel like to have your music performed by these fine musicians?” I was made to feel that it was a privilege for me to hear my music played by people who might as well have spent their time practicing and performing, well, real music. Audiences’ principal feeling about living composers is that we are darned lucky to have an occasional place beside the likes of Haydn and Schumann.

In a sense, they are right. We are, after all, the inheritors of a breathtaking tradition. Nine brief centuries ago, no music then in existence even suggested the possibilities that would shortly emerge through the invention and development of harmony and counterpoint. Drama already boasted Aeschylus and Sophocles, and visual arts had gone through several cycles of development, when Western music was still scratching its head, wondering how to go beyond a single melodic line and a drone. Its subsequent dynamic growth in a relatively short time belies the fact it is the youngest of the major arts.

And that is exactly why living composers are a critical component of a healthy classical music scene. If the so-called classical tradition is allowed to atrophy, if the repertoire is restricted to official masterpieces, along with a bare handful of new works allowed in by the gatekeepers of the musical establishment, our art will die young. Western art music is a teenager and must be allowed the freedom and adventure a teenager needs to grow, or be boxed up as a done deal and stunted for life. Classical music doesn’t need living composers to provide contrast with its tradition; it needs us for the tradition to continue.

It needs us, but it doesn’t want us. On the rare occasions when it does, the composers desired are generally those already established. The Ford Made in America project is currently doing us the great favor of introducing major composers such as Joan Tower and Joseph Schwanter to the many community orchestras that dot our country. Who will introduce those same orchestras and their audiences to the composers who are their neighbors? We’d be better served by program that bring music by local composers to the attention of people unaware that their neighbors are writing symphonies.

Writing for the stage has none of these drawbacks. The demand for new material in musical theater is sufficient that you don’t have to be Adam Guettel just to get work. Even opera is somewhat more open to unknown composers than is the concert hall. Jake Heggie was an unknown until Frederic von Stade discovered him; now his Dead Man Walking has enjoyed myriad productions worldwide. I can’t imagine a pianist or violinist discovering and promoting a composer in that way. The stage – whether opera or musical theater – feels a need for the new in a way the concert hall simply does not. I would include dance – which in the past provided working foundation for some of music’s greatest groundbreakers (think Stravinsky and Copland) – save that many choreographers today prefer ready-mades to commissioned scores, because of easily obtained recordings.

Those are some practical reasons for writing for the theater. The aesthetic reasons are as compelling. Mozart found the stage most congenial to his predilection for expressive melody. “You know my greatest desire is to write operas,” he wrote to his father upon arrival in Vienna. Even in non-operatic vocal scores such as the unfinished C-minor Mass and the Masonic Funeral Music, Mozart fulfilled the theater composer’s charge of conveying story and character through music. Richard Wagner worked his revolution through the theater, and the harmonic innovations that began as Wagner’s desire to portray the inner lives of his characters later burst onto the concert scene as a new way of handling abstract musical language. That’s the usual ontology: Innovation begins in the theater, then seeps into the concert hall.

This naturally reflects the historical roots of musical performance. Music performance in ancient Greece meant music in theatrical productions. Other music-making was for self-enjoyment: learning to play the kithara or the flute. The concert hall didn’t exist. Music in Enlightenment Europe centered on the opera house. Only when the pit musicians banded together to form philharmonias did the symphony arrive as a form, more than a hundred years after Monteverdi and company invented opera. You may well influence concert music more deeply by writing for the theater than for the concert hall; this has been true of Monteverdi, Wagner, Stravinsky and Glass.

Stravinsky praised the theater as a pragmatic alternative to the academy. Long after he might have chosen to write only concert works, Stravinsky returned to the theater again and again as a source of inspiration. Leonard Bernstein said all of his music—even, and maybe especially, the concert works—was theater music, since he needed a story or concept to spark his imagination. (Not one of Bernstein’s symphonies is without a program.) Philip Glass, who gravitates naturally to the theater, says he’s sometimes at a loss to write a pure symphony because it doesn’t give him an idea or image to start with. An extramusical source can feed a composer’s ability to go beyond what he or she already does. Glass has put it this way:

“The…thing about the theater and film and dance is that, when our work is impacted by these other things—by text or by image—we invariably find ourselves doing something that we didn’t know how to do.” (Emphasis added.)

Writing at a desk with the intent of shaping abstract musical thoughts into a new form is a wonderful enterprise. But for some of us, that’s trumped by the challenge of creating music to meet, match and enrich extra-musical ideas. To compose for the stage means to invent new ways of writing. You have to push your own boundaries. Glass started in the theater and has had his most spectacular successes in film—an extension of the theater. Film, especially with the explosion in independent productions, is yet another wide-open market for adventurous composers.

This very advantage is also the central challenge of theater composition: the need to collaborate. Composing for the stage means working with those other elements of text and/or image. You are not the autonomous agent you are when penning a symphony. The amount of collaboration required ranges from minimal at the opera end, where the only collaborative element may be the libretto; to film, where all elements are set and your music is their servant; to the musical theater, where a workshop of your show may mean the entire rewriting of script and score at a director’s suggestion. In this sense, composing for the musical theater is the direct opposite of writing a string quartet. The string quartet comes from you as an individual. The musical theater score is no less an individual product, yet it belongs as well to a community of collaborators.

Apollo was the god of music, Dionysus the god of drama. To Apollo also belonged medicine, while Dionysus got…wine. That’s why Dionysus, or his Roman equivalent Bacchus, is sometimes portrayed as a drunk. It was not, however, wine as an intoxicant, but wine as a socializing element that characterized the god’s meaning to ancient Greeks. Medicine heals one person at a time; wine may heal and bond a community. When music enters the theater, it blends the best of individual expression and the needs of the community.

A concert performance that does its job will cause a patron to feel the music reaching from individual (the composer) to individual (the patron). In musical theater of all sorts, a larger feeling emerges of an entire community being addressed by a conclave of its fellows. Both are wonderful art forms. While it may mean less freedom for the composer (then again, Wagner never wrote a note at somebody’s else’s insistence), the latter also means less isolation and far greater connection to the needs and desires of humanity.

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Kenneth LaFave
Kenneth LaFave

Kenneth LaFave‘s recent commissions include Canto de Alba for percussionist Maria Flurry, Gateways for Arizona State University bands and the one-act opera America Gothic for ASU’s Lyric Opera Theatre. A former student of Ned Rorem, LaFave has written arts journalism for a variety of publications, including Playbill and Opera News.