BWW Interviews: David O., The Man Behind The Music
If you’re involved in Los Angeles theatre you know the name David O. He’s the highly respected musical maestro behind many successful productions in the city and a leader about whom his fellow artists cannot rave enough. Among his credits as musical director are Jason Robert Brown’s 13 at the Mark Taper Forum, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, THE WILD PARTY and LITTLE FISH at Noah Wyle's The Blank Theatre Company, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. As a composer, he has written music for shows like South Coast Rep’s IMAGINE, Powerhouse Theater’s ATALANTA, Center Theatre Group’s THE VERY PERSISTENT GAPPERS OF FRIP, and TOY STORY: the Musical.
His quiet intensity belies his penchant for a good joke and he is a musician who truly loves to collaborate with other artists. When he’s on board a project, its participants breathe a sigh of relief. Around here, you know you’re in good hands with O. Now working with A Noise Within writing original music for Molierè’s play, THE BUNGLER, we talked about his ongoing partnership with the classical theatre company and how music came to be such a big part of his life.
David, you first collaborated on an unusual piece at A Noise Within about seven years ago called UBU ROI which brought a lot of attention to your work. How did you originally meet co-artistic directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott?
I don’t remember how we were first introduced but it’s a small world in the L.A. Theatre community so we already knew of each other’s work. Julia approached me when they were looking for a composer for UBU in 2006. She was directing the piece and we really hit it off creatively.
We were able to create a unique aesthetic with UBU that we’ve drawn on in two of our other collaborations - THE BUNGLER and OLIVER TWIST. We designed a musical palette that uses the actors as singer/actor/instrumentalist/Foley artists combined with traditional musical instruments and found objects to create a live soundscape. For UBU I was the primary musician and sound artist on stage but the actors also contributed a great deal musically. With OLIVER TWIST we continued that exploration but with the actors doing all of the music and sound effects themselves. We’re doing a similar thing with THE BUNGLER, however with this show we have a unique luxury in that, among the interns working at A Noise Within this season, is an excellent classical tuba player who’s part of the cast (Kabin Thomas). I jumped on that opportunity and he’s become a big part of the music of the show.
Is the music primarily instrumental or have you written vocal parts as well?
We’re using live tuba, live guitar and mandolin, a number of handheld percussion instruments, and an array of found objects that are also being used as percussion instruments, along with the actors’ voices. The influences come from a lot of different places, but the melodies primarily sound like folk tunes, for lack of a better comparison. The actors are really attacking the music with gusto and we get to play a lot stylistically. One of the things I love doing is defying the audience’s expectations so when we set up one moment in the play in a certain musical style, we then purposefully in the next moment do a complete U-turn to keep everybody a little bit off their guard.
Did you write any of the music before you started rehearsals or has this mainly been a collaborative process in rehearsals?
When I was first approached about doing the show I was up in Ashland at Oregon Shakespeare Festival working on ANIMAL CRACKERS so I was steeped in the world of the Marx Brothers. I sketched out some initial melodies that are now part of the show but they were pretty basic sketches. More of the music has been developed in improvisation and through the inspiration of the actors themselves in the rehearsal room.
It sounds like you really like the process of collaboration.
I do. I think working directly with other artists is an inherent part of the performing arts for me.
Have you ever thought about why you write music?
I happened to come across a great quote by the British choral conductor Sir Thomas Beecham recently. He said, ‘The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought,’ which I found really inspirational. I realized that’s a big part of how I think about creating music and how I think about listening to music. Part of why I write music is that I like to, for lack of a better term, mess with people’s heads. I enjoy surprising people with sounds. I enjoy catching people off guard and unexpectedly making them laugh or cry; giving people a cathartic experience through a combination of notes and rhythms as they tie into a story in the theatre or in the concert hall.