Adding Music To Drama – George Stiles

George Stiles is probably best known for his collaborative work with the writer Anthony Drew. Between them they have won umpteen gazillion awards and written six musicals including Honk, the recent production of Peter Pan starring Richard Wilson and Just So which has been optioned by Steven Spielberg for feature animation. George’s other work includes the shows Tom Jones, Moll Flanders and The Three Musketeers as well as music for Sam Mendes’ Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse and a recent project was Cameron Macintosh’s Mary Poppins.

Adding Music To Drama

When should you add music to drama?

When you add music to drama it has to have a specific purpose but we really need to be clear about whether you are scoring a play, film or an opera or musical. Of course you can merge the disciplines but the demands and indeed the starting point is very different for each genre.

A play is likely to use music for atmosphere, settling the audience, scene changes interludes and, perhaps if you’re lucky and the director trusts you with this, underscoring emotionally significant moments.

A film uses music much more heavily. In most cases you are providing an almost non-stop emotional motor for the drama: Lord of the Rings has hardly a scene that is not under-pinned. Music for film is used for the same purposes as music for a play but you can give character motifs and emotional motifs in a much more substantial way. You also dictate the pace and often the cutting of the movie. You define moments of excitement, tension, release and shock, as well as underlining all the fundamental story emotions – sadness, happiness, love and loss.

A musical or opera can give you the chance to do all these things – and have all your big scenes or speeches set as songs. The device that gives composers the most joy in musical theatre is reprise – both musical and lyrical. When the theme of I Could Have Danced All Night is used in the orchestra for Eliza’a appearance in the ball dress at the end of Act 1 of My Fair Lady, everyone gets goosebumps because the song is all about Eliza’s excitement at her own transformation – and now that we are seeing her look like a princess as well as sound like one – the music acquires even more potency.

All that said though I think it is going to be most useful for us to concentrate on one particular genre and so for this column at least, I will concentrate on employing music in plays.

Adding music to a play

It’s important when deciding to add music to a play that you consider what its exact function will be. You have to know why your music will enhance a scene and if the answer is ‘it won’t’ then don’t bother. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing music that will just slosh around over dialogue but avoid this if you can, it’s horrible.

Adding music to drama can be very effective but you need to decide certain things. For example, is the emotion of the music going to reinforce the text or play against it? This is very much a horses for courses issue. If you are underscoring a slapstick moment in a pantomime the classic drum crash is entirely appropriate but it wouldnít be good for more complex, emotional drama.

I recently used a brittle, tender theme under Malvolio’s very funny ‘All is Fortune’ speech in Twelfth Night. It would have been an obvious choice to write a piece that concurred with the way we all see him ñ as a rather foolish gull ñ but the director requested that I write a piece which instead fortified the way Malvolio saw himself. This pointed up the character’s solitude and isolation and meant that while the scene was still amusing, now the audience found the laughter catching in their throats as they suddenly realised poor Malvolio was sincere in every word he was saying.

Music should be used to establish mood and atmosphere but be very wary of over-emphasising emotional moments. Less is almost always more so try to be as concise as you can and try to be original too. Itís a good practice to play a different game with emotional context than the dramatist, donít labour that tearful reunion or dangerous encounter!

A mistake a lot of composers make is to have too many themes, whereas good practice is in fact to make the most of the themes youíve got. The useful thing about this is that it allows your audience to sense theyíve been listening to something with unity.

In the first instance write more than you need and then during the all important editing process reject whatís not great and refine what remains to make it work for you. Play with the orchestration and presentation of your themes so that they can be repeated in various guises for various purposes.

When Mimi reappears in La Boheme, sick and dying in Act 4 to the same music that she and Rodolfo fell in love to in the freezing garret in Act 1, Puccini knew we would all begin to weep right there and then, particularly as the theme is full of hope – the melody climbs, just when a lesser composer would make it fall.

One way to play with orchestration is to reduce it down to an unaccompanied melody (a solo line with the chords removed). Dvorjak famously uses this in his New World Symphony (otherwise know as the Hovis ad.) The oboe solo in this piece stands out like a sentinel because thereís nothing with its tonal colour anywhere around it. If you introduce a busy street scene with a fully orchestrated theme, consider reprising this in unaccompanied melody form when later one of your characters finds himself on the same street but alone.

Music is often best employed to move an audience along from one feeling to another. Scenes move and itís important the music does too. So, for example, at the end of one scene which might be the sleepy end of a day, build your composition into a furious bustle to enable the cross cut into the busy cityscape of the next. Itís important to prepare your audience in this way.

A famous example of musically preparing an audience is the two note string line used in the film Jaws. In Jaws the sea could be calm, but when the motif played our anxiety was aroused and we suddenly found ourselves mentally preparing for a shark attack. Such motifs can of course be used to trick an audience, preparing them for an event which may not happen (or at least not when they expect it to!) This ploy is often used in the horror genre.

The music you compose for a play has to be in sympathy with the playís needs. More often than not this relates to the way the drama has to interact with the audience.

If a dramatic moment is particularly sensitive or quiet an audience may need to be settled down in order to appreciate it. At the beginning of Act III in La Boheme, the scene Puccini presents us with is a pair of gates at dawn. It is snowing and Puccini wants to treat us to a gentle snow theme but such a delicate piece of music needs our full attention and Puccini knows that we will be restless after the end of the previous Act (in fact in modern theatres we would probably just be retaking our seats after a choc-ice and wine break!) His solution is to blast us with a full orchestral stab of two notes. This 5-1 cadence is like two syllables which literally say ‘shut up.’ Upon hearing them the audience knows to settle down and this allows for the pianissimo woodwinds and pizzicato strings to come in.

It should be clear then that music must be used to gain an audiences attention. Equally though it must be used to maintain it. The most dangerous moments in terms of losing audience attention are scene changes and interludes. You need to think about writing music long enough to cover the time these take and loud enough to cover any noise that moving props and changing scenery will make on stage.

When writing music specifically for scene changes consider whether your piece will pick up on the mood of the previous scene or prefigure that of the next one. Alternatively you may wish to write a dedicated piece for scene changes and scene changes alone as Garry Yershon did for Art. His jazzy vibraphone compositions proved to be an excellent transitional theme, generally ìartyî but unspecific, they did valuable job in maintaining the pace of the show.

When it comes to writing interlude music one of the best examples I can give you is Benjamin Brittenís work on Peter Grimes. Peter Grimes is a show about fishermen and a small community. It is played against the backdrop of the sea and this is desperately difficult to represent on stage but Britten manages it with interludes. He writes calm ones, stormy ones and ones that are teeming with life. It is mood music but it adds in an essential way to the story as a whole. Britten shows us that good interludes can continue to tell a story in a non verbal way.

Something to bear in mind when writing music for a play is that unlike in a film where you can underscore an entire scene in the theatre you must at some point hand over to the dialogue and the actors or crew. The reason for this is simply that film music can be carefully mixed and edited in a studio so as not to mask anything else whilst music for the theatre is generally live. You have to be concise and practical. When I was working on Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse, I liased with Paul Ardetti, the sound designer, to develop the atmosphere for a late summer afternoon scene. The result of our collaboration was four bars of languid, still, summer music which faded into the sound of crickets chirping and the actorís voices. The music I wrote was not a motor driving the story on but rather a quick summary of a feeling, it implied to the audience the necessary details of time and location and conveyed this idea of the endless tedium that is central to the play.

I think the main thing to remember when writing music for a play is that your music has a supporting role. It is there to assist the audience and the performers, not to upstage them. If you write something that bounds across the stage and steals the show it can be fun but in all but the least complex forms of drama itís going to be wrong. Keep writing, keep refining and aim to do the best job you can.

George Stiles
March 2003

We managed to speak to George in the middle of an incredibly hectic schedule as he was finishing the music for Mary Poppins and preparing to fly to New York for a meeting with Disney CEO Michael Eisner. We had to jump at the chance to speak to him but unfortunately this meant we had no opportunity to take questions from PTC members. However George has been brilliant and kindly offered to answer some at a later date so.

If you have a question for George Stiles please put it in an email with the subject heading George Stiles and contact us.

In the meantime here are the answers to some we came up with ourselves!

In a world where music is all around us, how do you make it stand out?

Be unexpected and original

Music has evolved enormously and as a composer you need to be aware of this. In fact a good exercise would be to watch five great movies from the last five decades and see how the musical content has developed.

With such a weight of material behind us, being original is no easy thing and it gets even harder now with music appearing in everything from sport to computer games. I think silence is an important tool though.

John Cage’s famous work 4’33” so called because it consists of exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds of absolute silence is in many ways a masterclass in original composition. It teaches us to listen and it teaches is that as composers we have to avoid getting carried away or becoming over indulgent. Stillness is an important element of sound and therefore of music, it’s the black against the white and you can do wonderful things with almost or ñ as in the case of 4’33” absolutely – nothing. I must add at this point though that whilst live in a concert hall Page’s piece is indescribably powerful the CD does very little for me!

Musical silence is important. So important in fact that it has its own place in notation: the rest. An example of putting the rest to good use can be found in the title song to Stephen Flahertyís Ragtime. The main theme of Ragtime uses a rest in the chorus which goes like this:

“And the people called it Ragtime (rest) Ragtime”

The pause before the repetition of the word “Ragtime” wrongfoots you in the most amazing way and brings the repetition to life. It provides emphasis.

One of the most powerful uses of silence I have heard recently is during the final gunfight scene in Sam Mendesí Road To Perdition. The film is littered with loud action sequences, car chases and violence and yet just at the point when youíd expect the musical underscore to crescendo it vanishes altogether leaving nothing but the mournful sound of the pouring rain. This unexpected absence of music grabs our attention in the most dramatic way and, I think, creates a classic, unexpected moment.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring musicians and composers?

Well, it’s not exactly my own advice but it’s very good advice and it was given to me and others by the highly respected composer, lyricist and author, Vivian Ellis. Vivian said:

“Go to everything and listen to everything. Even things you wouldn’t naturally listen to.”

It’s so important to do this. If you want to be original you need to acquire as complete a palette of sounds and styles as you can find. You also need to listen to others who have been original. In building your knowledge of music you will be building the best possible foundations for a successful career.

The Official Website of the award winning Musical Theatre aficionados George Stiles and Anthony Drewe is at

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