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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Josh Schmidt

Josh Schmidt

Today's subject (click on the name for lots of great music) Josh Schmidt is currently living his theatre life at Signature Theatre as the composer/co-lyricist and orchestrator of the world premiere musical Midwestern Gothic. The production runs from March 14 to April 30.

While the multi-award winning musical Adding Machine is his best known work, Mr. Schmidt is, by no means, a one-hit wonder of the theatre. Some recent theatrical score credits include A Minister's Wife, Whida Peru, and Gift of the Magi. His countless incidental music and sound design work has been heard at American Players Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, Primary Stages, Alley Theatre, Cleveland Playhouse, and many others. If you inhabit Ford's Theatre around the holidays, you can also hear Josh's handiwork in its annual production of A Christmas Carol. He has also written several operas and has several more coming soon. Besides writing for the stage, Josh has composed many jazz, classical and modern dance pieces

Josh's work has garnered him many awards including two Outer Critics' Circle Awards (Best Musical and Best Score) for Adding Machine. He also won several Joseph Jefferson Awards (Chicago) and was voted one of nine designers to watch by Entertainment/Design Magazine.

I have no doubt that Midwestern Gothic will feature nothing less than an inventive, out of the ordinary score. Signature Theatre being the place to premiere his latest work, Midwestern Gothic, it's sure to be a winning combination.

The lead character in Adding Machine might be named Mr. Zero, but anything with Josh Schmidt's name on it is a definite 100 plus.

NOTE from Josh Schmidt : "Theatre Life with Josh Schmidt" sounds like a Dostoyevsky novel without redemption at the end... That -- or a recipe for disaster!

Who got you interested in music and in writing it for the theatre?

Since I was five, my parents had me signed up for piano lessons, and while I am a poor excuse for a pianist, my instructor Susan Sonneborn encouraged my interest in music theory, form and analysis, ear training, and history. All of these things fused together in my compositional studies with Yehuda Yannay at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I also got considerable training and experience in electronic music and technology under Jon Welstead.

At the same time, no red tape existed in between my work at the university and the professional scene in Milwaukee. While in two bands, I also started applying what I learned in the classroom to theatre and dance projects in town while studying. In these environments, I met with Richard Carsey, Norma Saldivar, Jonathan West, and later Michael Halberstam, David Cromer, Kate Buckley (the list goes on) - people I still work with today. Music + Visual = fun in my book, and everything I have done since graduating in 1999 has been some sort of pursuit down this dark, blind alley. I have turned it into a career where I have composed/designed over 250 shows across the United States, in Canada, and abroad. This includes some Broadway work (most recently Therese Raquin at Roundabout/Studio 54). This time in a dark room has certainly deepened my perspective on dramatic structure and the power in the synthesis of music and theatre in addition to a serious vitamin D deficiency.

More importantly, it was through this composition/design career where I met Jason Loewith [current Artistic Director of Olney Theatre Center] who was apparently intrigued with my work enough to present me with a copy of Elmer Rice's Adding Machine and said (I paraphrase) if you turn this into a musical (using the term loosely), Next Theatre will produce it. The rest they say, is history... I guess...what happened? Where am I?

Artwork for Signature Theatre's upcoming production of Midwestern Gothic.

Midwestern Gothic is a world premiere musical. Where did the idea for the show come from and how did you get attached to the project?

I met Royce Vavrek [book writer and co-lyricist] in 2008 or so, and at that time he was working at The Public Theater and was an up-and-coming opera librettist. Since people think my stuff falls in between those two categories, and so our enthusiasm for the form allowed us to form a fast friendship. We had been talking about various ideas including a musical "monologue" about a young woman being held captive who falls in love with her captor (blockbuster stuff, right?).

Near or around that time Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre called me, and said something to the effect of "Congrats! We have selected you to be a part of the American Musical Theatre Voices Program (supported by the Ted and Mary Jo Shen Foundation) and if you write three songs we like and come up with an idea we will (maybe) produce it." I said "That's great!" I was sitting in a Starbucks on 34th and 8th at the time. My next call in that Starbucks was to Royce.

We started with that initial idea, but very quickly things morphed as we got to know each other. We are both NOT from NYC - I am from Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee; Royce hails from Grand Prairie, Alberta Canada. We were both raised on farms. I personally had an extremely hard time adapting to the difference between the Midwest and NYC - the east coast for that matter. There is also that saying that you can take the man out of the Midwest, but not the Midwest out of the man. That is certainly true for me.

As we share similar backgrounds we started to construct very organically and loosely a narrative about a young woman infatuated with her stepfather in a very isolated Midwestern environment with seemingly no escape for either. I have to admit this journey has taken a long time because, at least in terms of musical theatre structure, it lacks any apparent precedent. Shows like this are hard to build anyway, and coming up with a new idea from scratch make things exponentially harder.

We wrote some more tunes. We were greenlighted to finish the commission. We had a two-week workshop to explore the material. It was successful in many ways, but I feel it was not until Matt Gardiner [Associate Artistic Director] sat us down to break this beast into notecards on a wall did an actual solid dramatic structure emerge. As they say, it takes a village.

How do you best describe your score for Midwestern Gothic?

Would the descriptor "A pared-down "Alte Kameraden" meets Led Zeppelin collective featuring a tuba" be acceptable?

I dunno - I guess this music and this material is more overtly sexual and dangerous at the same time (sit on that one for a while) than anything I have done before. Early on, Richard Carsey and I were playing through and he said something to the effect of "this shit is crazy, what audience are you writing it for?"

Fair question. I had no answer.

Now -- It's been since 2010 since I have had an original piece of mine hit the stage, and I have not been sitting at home eating bon-bons over imaginary millions that came in from those early projects (they say imagination is dangerous by the way!)...

No - In that time I have written roughly 45-60 minutes of an upcoming Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theatre commission with Dick Scanlan, another full-blown opera with Warner Brown, several other commissions in various stages of development hell waiting to be attacked once again, and several other commercial projects which were either aborted or where I was replaced. The experience has been personally professionally humbling. I have had to learn patience, which I never really had before. And I have had to start learning to "sit still" for reasons of personal health and sanity. And you learn to appreciate the incredible honor that is "opening night" - because it is never a guarantee.

So here is this music - our Music Director and my long-time collaborator Tim Splain has described to me along these lines; "the most aggressive stuff I have written in terms of rhythm and dissonance yet you don't really notice it because when you boil everything down its all blues and folk music structures."

Well - ok! I will take that - Thanks Tim!

I did not really think of any of these things when writing. In fact, the individual pieces of this show came to me very quickly and I just wrote down what I heard in my head (I never write in front of a piano). Royce has a very particular syntax in his language that very much drives the rhythms in this piece, but never did I consider what something needed to sound like - very much in contrast to other assignments where that was one consideration I needed to tackle. Those projects have for one reason or another gone away.

I still have no answer for what audience this is for, but David Bowie has stated that one should "never play to the gallery." He also stated writers get their best results when remaining "selfish" with their material, and that writers should feel "a little out of their depth" when tackling a project cuz that's when shit get really interesting. We'll see...

Artwork for the off-Broadway production of Adding Machine.

As with your previous musical Adding Machine, you are orchestrating your own score. Do you always do this on one of your shows?

I have in the past because as a composer I am trained to orchestrate as a writer. This seems like crazy talk to folks in the industry sometimes, but it's what I do. Musicians are a theatrical part of any performance, I think. I also like writing for chamber ensembles.

I have projects upcoming where I have let go of this responsibility for very specific reasons and have to say I love hearing what other people make of my written material. In particular, the amazing Daniel Kluger and his orchestrations for the upcoming Virtuality Sal, all done with live electronic instruments with a trio of performers. You can learn a lot about yourself when you let go of the reigns, as I have found out.

Does it put extra pressure on you to get the show written so you can then orchestrate it or do you orchestrate as you go?

No (for reasons I have stated earlier). However, Midwestern Gothic has been something of a bitch because what I thought the "behavior" of the ensemble was (accordion, guitar/mandolin/banjo, tuba, piano, drums/percussion) and what the actual reality of it is has proven to be slyly deceptive. It's much more of a "bar-band" mentality than a polite musical theatre ensemble. So, the score demands different things from my addled brain.

When you were orchestrating Adding Machine, you scored it for three or four players, but made it sound like a full orchestra. How was this achieved and how did you find a percussionist nicknamed Gorilla to play the show?

Benjamin Britten as composer/orchestrator is someone who is always a good example to look to regarding making small ensembles sound huge. He was the expert at it - just look at Turn of the Screw, or the early Sinfonia.

Simply put, I think there is this rule of seven - back in the old days, minus the area code, US phone numbers have seven digits. You can package in your mind numbers like an area code into one "number," but the more numbers you have to remember or process in sequence the more complex and dense things become. So goes it with musical counterpoint. In Bach's fugues, there are always moments where the counterpoint sorta breaks down and starts overlapping itself into what we call "stretto" moments where the illusion of more than 4 lines are in play. Like being in a "fugal" state of mind. For me, if you can through registration and timbre give the illusion that there are more that seven lines of musical information fighting with each other, people will think there is a bigger band then you actually have. There are also slight-of-hand things you can do in pairing instrumental colors off in ways to create depth of field in sound - for instance in A Minister's Wife, the bass clarinet functioned as the "bass" leaving the cello to pair often in octaves, unison, or other intervals to give the illusion of a larger string compliment than we had.

This is what we call writing on a budget. And I also like the idea that no instrumentalist is less important than the other. So - everyone has "fun"!

Brad "Gorilla" Carbone is one hell of a percussionist and musician. He's out there looking for you to hire him right now. On Adding Machine we just got lucky!

Rick Hammerly at center with the company of the Ford's Theatre production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Scott Suchman.

You are the composer/ sound designer for A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre. The soundtrack has a very percussive sound to it, particularly in "I Saw Three Ships." Whose idea was it to take the musical sound of the show in that direction?

We can credit Director Michael Baron (former Associate Artistic Director at Signature and current Artistic Director of Lyric Theatre, Oklahoma City) for advocating for an earthy and rustic quality to those arrangements... I was happy to oblige!

What are your next few projects in 2017?

Upcoming Composition/Sound Design: A Midsummer Night's Dream (dir. John Langs) and Pericles (dir. Eric Tucker) at American Players Theatre; and Love Labor's Lost (dir. Tyne Rafaeli) at Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.

Upcoming Compositions: Saturday Night at Lu's (Playwrights Horizons/Carnegie-Mellon Grant; Keith Glover, Book + Lyrics; Josh Schmidt, Music + Lyrics); Life After Life (Groundswell Theatricals; David Simpatico, Libretto; Josh Schmidt, Music); and Fallingwater (Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center; Dick Scanlan, Libretto; Josh Schmidt, Music)

Among others...

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Deputy Director of Creative Content and Publicity James Gardiner for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Additional assistance was provided by Signature Theatre's Director of Marketing and Sales Jennifer Buzzell.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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