BWW Exclusive: Adam Guettel Talks the Sound of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD- Plus a Clip from His Score!

By: Apr. 25, 2019
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To Kill A MockingbirdAtticus Finch might be the voice we remember from To Kill A Mockingbird- the classic story that Aaron Sorkin brought to Broadway this season- but Adam Guettel is the man who made Mockingbird sing. The Broadway composer traded musical theatre for drama this season as he created the score for the critically-praised hit.

Below, Guettel tells us all about how he found the sound of the play, and shares an exclusive clip from the To Kill A Mockingbird score.

Let's start at the beginning - how did you first get involved with the production?

Bart (Sher) and I have done a lot together and have worked on multiple jobs together. When this happened, I was excited to be able to just take direction and to pick up the coordinates that were given to me by Aaron Sorkin and Bart to invent the sound and musical landscape for this story, which is so important to me.

It was also a pretty great opportunity to work a different way. When I'm writing scores for musicals, it's a pretty private process and I usually come up with the ideas for the shows to begin with or find the originating material and set to work on my own. A lot of that is a fairly isolated thing.

This was quite the opposite, because of how little time we had and how much work it was to do -how much music needed to be generated for this production. I had to make and write a lot of it in the room with the actors and sometimes Aaron Sorkin and Scott Rudin. It was a much more exposed and almost spontaneous process, and I think it generated (or summoned) a different kind of work from me. That was really refreshing and probably healthy for me.

It wasn't stressful having all those people in the room while you did your thing?

At first it was, but only at the very beginning. After that I just became kind of giddy with how quickly things were getting invented and getting thrown out if they didn't work, I would just make something else. "Okay, well we need 30 seconds of something different. How about this..." It got to be sort of a gleeful, unselfconscious process.

Did you go back before that process to either re-read the novel or the look at the film to immerse yourself in the world of the story, or did you just draw on inspiration from the script?

I did both. And, of course, the new script and version of this play on that originating material changed a lot over the course of the development...

It was very good to be a part of a cultural re-imagining. It's a very original piece even in its original form and I love it, but this was really interesting and very layered. It wasn't just a dutiful recreation or linear recreation of what Harper Lee wrote. As you know, it wasn't an update as much as a very immersive reimagining.

To Kill A Mockingbird
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

As there was changes throughout the process to the script, did that change the music simultaneously?

That tends to happen. Of course that happens and when the script changes there are different requirements. Sometimes the requirements change because the sort of tone of the scene has shifted and what's required of me can shift as a result. Or, sometimes transitions change or become longer or shorter.

At first, I felt a little exposed because the players are live. They sit on either side of the stage, and I thought that could be conspicuous and I wasn't sure that it would be good for the music to be conspicuous.

But because I wrote it in the room with everyone, it really ended up - I think, integrated in a way that I wouldn't have expected and it's very inconspicuous and very supportive. That's what I set out to do and that's what Bart needed.

How much music did you ultimately end up writing?

It was a lot of music! For a play, usually the incidental score for a play is relatively few cues. I think we ended up with 38.

It feels like it fits perfectly into the production, almost as if it would be hard to imagine it without the music interspersed.

Thank you, I'm really happy to hear that you felt that way. Kimberly Grigsby is the musical director and my longtime collaborator, and it wouldn't sound integrated at all without her or be nearly as good. She's just the best.

Is this something you would do again for other plays if it was the right project?

Absolutely. It's a great thing to be taken out of one's normal footpath and be told to write, be told what is necessary, and to write things you wouldn't ordinarily write. That's the whole point of it all - to keep growing and not do the same thing again.

Has this experience helped you with the other upcoming projects that you're working?

It has on two levels: A slightly different kind of music and also a different kind of music making. In other words, I'm usually sequestered into small Little Room somewhere 'faraway from the maddened crowd' in some building in the middle of nowhere out of shyness. I don't like it when people hear my nascent ideas at all. It makes me really uncomfortable.

This was quite the opposite. I had to do it that way and that was very healthy for me. I think that that's something I could now do again in the future without feeling so self-conscious about it. It was a good healthy growth for me in that way.

Guettel's theatre credits include: The Light In the Piazza (2005; Tony Award for Best Original Score; Grammy Award nomination for Best Musical Theater Album; cast album on Nonesuch Records), Floyd Collins (1996 at Playwrights Horizons; Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, Obie Award for Best Music; cast album on Nonesuch Records), and Saturn Returns (1998 at The Public Theater; recorded by Nonesuch Records as Myths and Hymns). Other awards include the Stephen Sondheim Award (1990), the ASCAP New Horizons Award (1997), and the American Composers Orchestra Award (2005). He received an honorary doctorate from Lehman College in 2007.

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