Thursday, January 15, 2015

"The Whipping Man": Milestone Production for Composer Michael Roth

Michael Roth
Roth’s Moments—Fond Theatre Memories

“It’s not so much that I have favorite shows, as much as there are moments from a lot of productions that I remember where all of the elements—including what I was doing—worked really well together and created a moment that was unique.” Those theatre moments for Roth include (in chronological order, with some of his thoughts):
John de Lancie and Marnie Mosiman in
Man and Superman, 1990.

Man and Superman George Bernard Shaw, 1990-91) – “At the end of the first act, as a prelude to Don Juan in Hell, I used Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” as the cast danced offstage, leaving Jack Tanner alone, to end the act. It rocked in a pretty great way, and was funny and sort of eerily beautiful, too.”

The Education of Randy Newman (Randy Newman, Michael Roth, Jerry Patch, 1999-2000): “We developed a piece that Randy was very much a part of and it continued beyond SCR. Randy learned a lot about theatre working with us, for which I know he’s grateful, and personally, I got to play two hours of rock’n’roll piano every night. The play was called by a reviewer, ‘a graduate course in what songwriting can do, and how smart theatre people can make ideas into events that move, amuse, and engage us.’”

Mr. Marmalade (Noah Haidle, 2003-04): “I recorded the score, as I often do, with my dear friend the great guitarist Peter Sprague, at his studio. Peter, when he recorded the first guitar part, counted himself in, saying, ‘One, two, three.’ It sounded so perfect for the play to have someone count and then start to play that we kept it, and it started and ended the play itself—I loved it so much, I’ve used if for a few other projects as well, though none so special as the world premiere of Mr. Marmalade.”

Sight Unseen, Dinner With Friends, Brooklyn Boy (Donald Margulies, 1991-92, 1998-99, 2004-05): “Three world premieres, two directed by Daniel Sullivan, and all of them moved to Broadway or off-Broadway. I’m very proud to have written the scores and collaborated with Donald and Dan.”

Nothing Sacred (George F. Walker, 2006-7): “I translated the stage directions into Russian, and the cast sang them as change of scene music. At the end, the stage direction says the characters are “Sitting, chuckling, eating apples—blackout.” I had the two actors sing those words in Russian, and somehow it did communicate a sense of their going on (and the Russian Revolution maybe). Music can do that.”

Misalliance (George Bernard Shaw, 2010-11): “There’s a plane crash just off stage, and using the sound of a lawn mower and embellishing it slowly (with the help of LCS), I almost made you think an old plane traveled slowly from the parking structure, entered the Segerstrom house left, traveled across the stage and slammed into a crash box off stage left—a pure sound design moment, not bad.”

The Whale, Rest (Samuel D. Hunter, 2012-13, 2013-14): Roth is proud of his recent work on two Samuel D. Hunter productions, The Whale and Rest. Roth was delighted to find out that Hunter had studied music composition and was sensitive to how contemporary musical choices could deepen the impact of his play. “My music and sound is heavily influenced by American composer John Cage—his use of silence and how elements sound all go into a composition. Sam was very appreciative of the Cagean elements of my score for The Whale, especially the prepared piano. In Rest, the sound of the door was a realistic sound element that took on almost iconic importance. I actually filmed what an automatic door would do, foleyed the sound and showed the new film to Martin.”
Michael Roth sits in a room with keyboards, multiple computer screens and even more equipment set up in South Coast Repertory’s recording studio. He’s composing the music and sound for The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, directed by Martin Benson; it is Roth's 55th production at SCR over a quarter-century.

American Theatre Magazine described Roth's work—including his chamber music, opera and music and theatre, film, and more than 200 projects for theatre—as “music one could imagine Charles Ives composing had he lived long enough to encounter rock-and-roll and beat poetry.” Roth’s many projects include work with PBS, Disney, Canada’s Stratford Festival, collaborations with Culture Clash, Sarah Ruhl, Des McAnuff, accompanying Alicia Keyes, Tom Stoppard, two recent projects with Christopher Plummer (The Tempest and Plummer's one-man show, A Word or Two), and many projects with Randy Newman, including their acclaimed SCR collaboration, The Education of Randy Newman (2000), for which Roth was music director, arranger and pianist.

“I am a composer who creates and exploits a lot of sound in my work, so I don’t see them as separate jobs; sound is always a ‘musical gesture.’” Roth adds, “Thrilling as it is to work as often as I have with great directors, actors and designers, the most joyous part of what I do is to get to work with great musicians. They bring a skill set, imagination, and passion to every note you write that inspires and never ceases to amaze me.”

SCR is a special place for Roth—it’s where he first got to work with a computerized sound system back in 1988, when Benson directed Roth’s first SCR production—the award-winning production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It included a 30-minute pre-show where Roth changed the “sound picture every 30 seconds. That was the first time I was able use the computer as a compositional tool in a theatre space, something we pretty much take for granted nowadays.”

Kandis Chappell and James Sutorias in SCR's 1988
production of The Crucible.
Roth adds, “Martin and I have such a good relationship, and I'm grateful that he trusts me to bring a certain sensitivity to what he’s working on.”

Benson enjoys working with Roth, saying, ‘Michael is a gifted composer and musician who does fabulous work. I appreciate that when his work calls for music, he brings live musicians into the studio to record.”

Roth’s work often has caught the attention of Orange County Register theatre critic Paul Hodgins. “Michael’s stylistic range is astounding,” Hodgins says. “He shows a chameleon-like ability to create a score that is perfect for the context.”

Libby West, Sue Cremin and Rob Nagle in SCR's 2014
production of Rest.
For The Whipping Man, Roth has been intrigued by several characteristics.

“For example, in the play, it’s raining all the time, so I had to find ways for the rain to be present without being a distraction. And there are the Jewish themes in the play, as well the Civil War—all of these come together in the score, including the use of the Shofar, recorded voices, strings, trumpet, and piano—all in the rain.”

Roth worked tirelessly in SCR’s studio for The Whipping Man, using the multiple keyboards—computer and musical—in the room.

“When I’m not doing a gig somewhere, I try to compose as much as I can every day. That is what I really like and it's my job—to write,” he says.

He’s never one to be still for long. Roth’s upcoming projects include a chamber music/theatre treatment of Beckett’s Imagination Dead Imagine—which he describes as “my most personal piece, Beckett himself gave me permission to set his text”—a sonata for toy piano, to be premiered in LA in the spring, and a new opera for YouTube.

Find out more information about Roth and his work online.

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