George Stiles is a renowned composer of stage musicals, probably best known for his collaborative work with the lyricist Anthony Drewe. Between them they have won numerous awards and, at the time of writing, created six musicals including Honk!, Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure, and Just So which was optioned by Steven Spielberg. George’s other work includes the shows Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, and The Three Musketeers, as well as music for Sam Mendes’ award-winning Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse. We spoke to George in the middle of a busy schedule, and he gave us his advice and insight on how to write music for plays.
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 — are 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: The Lord of the Rings has hardly a scene that is not underpinned. 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 ballgown at the end of Act I of My Fair Lady, everyone gets goosebumps because the song is all about Eliza’s excitement at her own transformation. 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. 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 first you need to decide certain things.
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 wouldn’t 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 — as a rather foolish gull — 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 overemphasising emotional moments. Less is almost always more, so try to be as concise as you can and try to be original too. It’s a good practice to play a different game with emotional context than the dramatist, don’t 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 you’ve got. The useful thing about this is that it allows your audience to sense they’ve been listening to something with unity.
In the first instance write more than you need and then, during the all important editing process, reject what’s 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.
Mimi reappears in La Boheme, sick and dying in Act IV, 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). Dvorak 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 there’s 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 play’s 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 audience’s attention. Equally though it must be used to maintain it.
Pay attention to scene changes and interludes
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 alone as Gary Yershon did for Art. His jazzy vibraphone compositions proved to be an excellent transitional theme, generally ‘arty’ 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 Britten’s 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 Arditti, 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 actor’s 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 it’s going to be wrong.