John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman

Writing for the Theater

FRANK J. OTERI: How did you become so involved with theater?

JOHN DUFFY: I was offered a job as music director for Shakespeare Under the Stars, which was the Antioch College Shakespeare Festival, which ran three months. And I said, “Gee, I’ll take the job if we can do concerts, two a week, Saturday and Sunday, and that we’d present mostly American works. Preferably new, young composers.” And he said, “Sure, you can do that.”

FRANK J. OTERI: So even then you were helping other composers.

JOHN DUFFY: Right, and it was great. Anyway, we went down there with eleven musicians playing live, and we did, the first year, Hamlet, King Lear, Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, and Henry the Eighth, and we put on two concerts a week. We moved the piano. We swept the stage. We cleaned out the theater. We wrote the program notes. We had a piano player there; his name was Abe Plum, and he could sight-read anything—Stefan Wolpe, anything you put up there. It never got any better but it never got any worse; he would just read the stuff like that! Anyway, we performed that summer I would say something like 80 new works. And in addition, we wrote for the plays; I wrote for two plays. I picked the two juiciest, Hamlet and King Lear. Ed London was there; he played horn, and Ed wrote for Comedy of Errors. Jimmy Yannatos was there; he played violin, and he wrote for Measure for Measure, and Maurice Peress, he played trumpet. Anyway, it was a great summer, and I found that I loved the theater. I had an innate intuitive sense of theater—balance, language, music, dramatic humor, contrast, so forth, and so theater came out well and for me. Theater means not only what they call ‘legitimate stage’ but television. I did a lot of documentary films for TV in addition to what I call concert music. So, I was also conducting, but I was earning a living writing music. My goal was to earn a living writing music, to hone my craft, and to work in the theater. So, I went from that festival to writing music for festivals all over the country and then becoming music director at the American Shakespeare Festival and working with John Houseman, which was like working with the guru of American theater. He was a great guy. We used to drive back and forth from New York to Stratford with him, hear about the group theater, hear about Marc Blitzstein and The Cradle Will Rock, his work with Virgil Thomson… It was a great thing and I would ask him questions. John is a guy, by the way, who also had a great sense of public service through the arts, through the theater. And to me he was just a fabulous man. Just before he died he was narrator for my Symphonic Suite with narration down in Virginia, with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. I conducted and he was narrator and that was a wonderful experience.