Broadway is back, and so is Stefano Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy.” The play had been slated for a spring 2020 opening until, well, you know the rest. Finally, it opens at the Nederlander Theatre on Oct. 14. Along with an epic story adapted by Ben Power, audiences can expect to be swept away with an original score (which will be available to listen to on all major platforms). Composer Nick Powell hopped on the phone from London to discuss working with director Sam Mendes—the two also collaborated on “The Ferryman”—and the risk of using music as a substitute for storytelling.
When people think of theater composers, they tend to think of musicals. Can you describe what you do as a composer for straight plays?
It’s quite broad, because I was playing in rock bands originally. And actually, I have written lots of songs for musical theater. But my inclination, originally, was toward quite experimental theater—nontraditional musicals, I suppose. And I’ve always made my own music, too. I came from playing in bands, and I was part of a theater company where we devised our own work. So, I always created music around rehearsals, which is actually the process we had on “The Lehman Trilogy” in the end. [It] was fun to go back to my roots. The original version of “The Lehman Trilogy” was, like, 18 hours long. So, in our rehearsal process, along with Sam and Ben Power, who adapted it, we were playing with all the text and really making a show out of all the bits of it that seemed interesting. We were inventing it as we went along, and I was just on a piano in the room, improvising. The score came out of those improvisations.
How did you work out what moments needed scoring, and what those moments should individually sound like?
What bit went where, that just sort of started in rehearsals, just making stuff up. Sam would give me a look if they were working out a scene, and that kind of meant: Play something. And then I’d make something up, and if he shot me dagger eyes, I knew it wasn’t working. But if he didn’t do anything at all, it meant he was tolerating it.
Since you were improvising in rehearsals, was your work informed by the actors’ performances?
Completely. It’s very interactive. That’s how I describe it. It was a very exciting, creative room to be in. And then, later on, we brought in Candida Caldicot, who’s our musical director and will be the pianist when performances start in New York. Once I kinda fixed what the music was, she took over playing the piano and I moved on to designing sound, sound effects, things like that. All of that stuff came out of people bouncing ideas around in the room.
How do you make sure that the music isn’t heavy-handed, as far as telling the audience how they should feel?
You have to use your own instincts on that. I’m super aware that music can sometimes cover up dramaturgical flaws, because music is a balm, isn’t it? So I’m very keen to interrogate exactly what the music is achieving in any one moment. And if it’s just to create a sense of emotion, then it’s incorrect, because it should be specific. You should always know exactly what you’re doing with it. Otherwise, it can become sort of like a soft bed, and I don’t think it communicates anything specific enough to an audience. It’s just sort of nice. So, I think the answer to your question is: by constantly questioning it. Just because it sounds nice doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for the moment. You have to go, How is this making me feel, and is that appropriate for this moment? And you also have to ask other people and accept feedback from others.
Did you have any conversations with the actors about what certain moments for their characters should sound like?
It was a rehearsal room where everything was up for discussion. We talked about the video [elements] and we talked about how the set worked, and hopefully, everything integrated. The other starting point for the music was, there is a line in the play that says, “America has opened up like a magical music box,” and that was a very evocative line for me. We have a set that’s, like, a revolving cube, which is a bit like a music box. That was also a powerful starting point. I feel like the whole development of the show came out of that discussion about how to create this “box of treats” sort of thing for an audience. It’s evocative, this picture of the American 20th century. And it’s also theatrically playful, to play with all the design elements: music, video, acting. We were all having fun with it and telling the story together in a way that kind of locked together in a cohesive way.
What sort of preparation did you do to figure out what the show should sound like—the overall aural feel of it?
In advance of going into rehearsals, I did research into Jewish folk music from the era, because I knew we were telling the story of these brothers who were coming [to New York] in the mid-19th century. But, in fact, what the play does is it’s the story of New York, the rise of New York, and the behemoth of the financial sector. I’ve always been obsessed with New York, and it excites me that it’s kind of an impossible city, and that’s something I was keen to explore. So those were the two starting points for the music: One of them was progress and about building something in this huge city, which in some ways is the best place in the world, and in other ways can turn into a nightmare if you don’t have enough money or the system crashes. And the other was the backward momentum to all the old folk songs.
You’ve also composed for film and television. How different is scoring for a live piece compared with scoring for a project that adds music after the fact?
It’s really different. This isn’t always the case, but I think of writing for film as this way to bring out your inner craftsperson. By the time you get to write music for a film, it’s normally a locked edit, which means it’s fixed, more or less. And you get to really go into the details with every cut and every frame. The eye of the audience is always controlled by the director; you know where everybody is looking all the time. In theater, you have no control over where the audience is looking. You can try to grab their attention, get them to look in one direction, but they won’t necessarily if they don’t feel like it. So it feels more artful to me, because you have to sink yourself into it. You just have to create the thing that’s in your head, artistically, and that feels like a quite different process. It feels more like fine art rather than craft. And also, because you’re coming in at an earlier stage, you actually are part of the inception and conception of the piece, whereas you’re one of the later elements in film.
What advice would you give to emerging composers who want to break into theater or film and TV?
The most important thing is to always go for the project that interests you, rather than the one you think will further your career. The things that have taken me the furthest were through making a choice about interesting art, not about trying to make money or get in with the right people or strategizing about ambition—artistic ambition, yes, but not career ambition. Find like-minded people and start your own thing. If you start off working in an egalitarian environment where everybody’s voice is heard, that’s a brilliant way to start out, rather than trying to get in with people who feel more senior to you. Start a band!
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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