Putting it Together: An Update on Eurydice
Last fall, I had the pleasure or reading James Lapine’s new book, Putting it Together. In it, Lapine chronicles the day-to-day experience of creating a new stage musical, in this case the Pulitzer Prize winning Sunday in the Park with George. The music and lyrics for this show were by the late, great Stephen Sondheim, a composer who made innovation his middle name. Lapine was the author of the musical’s book; the project was also his first experience as a director in music theater.
Did the project experience a smooth road to success? Hardly. Lapine describes the questions, the problems, the insecurities, the stress and second guessing by cast members, crew and the show’s creators. Songs added, songs removed; a second act that took forever to get on paper and from there to the stage. As to the show’s topic: reflections on the nature of art and life, as seen through the world of the visual artist. Sunday in the Park was not a trip to Oklahoma! But somehow, just as a memorable song in the show states, cast and crew managed to “put it all together.” The result was a music theater masterpiece.
Wouldn’t we wish that every new creative project of substance could triumph over any challenge and allow the audience to enjoy its originality and brilliance? Of course! But the road to the final product is rarely easy, nor should it be. I find myself in that position as I work with the Heidelberg Theater Department in their new production of Sarah Ruhl’s wonderful play, Eurydice.
For more background on this play and project, please see my earlier news article on this website (Redefining a Classic Story) in the News section. Quickly stated: first produced in 2003, Ruhl’s Eurydice works with the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice dies and descends to the Underworld; Orpheus will attempt to rescue her. The events of this classic tale are experienced largely through Eurydice’s eyes, rather than Orpheus, a marked difference from earlier stage versions of this story.
In this production, I am providing both incidental music and sound design. For the better part of three months, I studied the play, took notes, and made important musical decisions that will hopefully provide new dimensions for this intriguing project. The music was recorded using Reason, a digital software program, allowing me to utilize a variety of sounds, from traditional instruments to electronic ones.
Among the challenges and decisions:
Does this play require a “theme?” Eurydice has a woman’s name in the title. Does this mean that this woman receives her own theme music? Sometimes, the answer to this question is yes; sometimes the answer is no. Two years ago, I supplied music for a production of the Greek comedy, Lysistrata. This was a similar situation, but the title character did not need a theme for reasons that I will not explain right now. I did not assign specific musical material to her; no one noticed! But this time, the nature of the play itself demanded a “theme,” so I created one….
How to create a theme: If one is to create a theme that represents a particular character in a play or film, then that character’s nature must be studied carefully. In this play, Eurydice is young, innocent, even child-like. She is deeply in love with Orpheus, who in this play is a composer (Ha!) Together, the two lovers are a naïve couple, totally unprepared for what is about to happen to them in the play. The script combines humor and drama, but overall, we are heading towards a tragic conclusion.
The Eurydice theme/motive: The thematic material for Eurydice uses the pitches of an Aeolian scale, just a hair different than the traditional minor scale. Orpheus sings a portion of this tune (two measures worth) to Eurydice in the very first scene in the play; she tries to sing it back to him but has difficulties! From here, the motive expands into a larger theme that is heard throughout the performance. But these first two bars, a smaller unit within the larger theme (motive) is what the audience will hear the most as the show progresses. With the right accompaniment and harmonies, I can make this tune sound sweet and innocent. At other times, it can suggest the final tragedy that is to come. Through all of this, the viewer is reminded that Eurydice is the primary focus of the play’s many events.
Life in Hell (musically): In the famous story, Eurydice dies and descends to the Underworld. Author Sarah Ruhl has stated in her introduction to the play that depictions of Hell should resemble Alice in Wonderland as opposed to more traditional presentations of the dark kingdom. Ruhl’s vision of Hades also allows comedy to take on a greater role. Creating incidental music to reflect this upside-down world is certainly fun, but I wanted to have at least one direct connection that involves the cast.
The “Singing” Stones!: The play presents three characters known as The Stones: Big Stone, Little Stone and Loud Stone. They are inhabitants of the underworld and interact with Eurydice and other characters on a regular basis the rest of the way. Each Stone speaks their own individual lines, but the three players also speak together as a trio. I decided to set the group responses to music! Musical performance is not supposed to exist in Hell, but the Alice in Wonderland concept allows for seeming contradictions!
It is not my intention to create “songs” here; the Stones only sing when they have a line or two as an ensemble. It is another voice or inflection that they can use in presenting their characters.
How to write for Stones: They can’t quite sound like human beings, of course…….as a result, they are limited to only 3 pitches: F#, E and G. For the most part The Stones sing the three pitches in the same order each time; F sharp is always the first pitch; most lines end on G. The musical lines happen in the middle of dialogue scenes; the Stones shift to singing and then right back to their spoken voices. The result should be spontaneous and somewhat unpredictable.
How do they find their pitches? Listen to the music! The cues that circulate in the speakers above their heads constantly provide the pitches that they need through the use of a repeating ostinato pattern that is woven into the total track. Simply reach up and grab what you need, when you need it.
Will this plan work? The play is in rehearsal now. Stay tuned for updates……
How to write for Orpheus: In the traditional story, Orpheus must sing and charm the inhabitants of Hell, resulting in the offer to allow Eurydice to return to life on Earth. In the stage directions, Sarah Ruhl asks Orpheus to open his month, but not actually sing. Orpheus’ singing voice became my responsibility; it is heard by the audience as one of the sound cues in the show. How does one compose a song that is beautiful enough to make even The Stones cry? Come see the show and find out……..
I feel very good about the music that I have created for this production of Eurydice; it may be one of my best efforts in this genre. Despite this, I do realize that some of my grand ideas may not work. Some ideas may be problematic given this set of circumstances of this particular production although they may work with another theater troupe in the future. Allowances will have to be made; sacrifices may happen for the greater good; I hope that I can be a good sport about this. I know how to stand up for my work, but I also realize that the play’s the thing, as Shakespeare would say. All of us must work together to serve the storytelling if we share any hope of putting it all together……
On the Recordings tab of this website are three excerpts from this show:
· Eurydice’s Theme: from Movement 2 (Act) of the play. This is the one complete presentation of the main theme, as Eurydice’s father prepares a room in Hades for Eurydice to enjoy. For more information on this music, please see the Putting it Together article in Ruminations.
· Eurydice’s Death and Journey to Hades: this excerpt comes from Movement 1 of the play. In this version, Eurydice falls to her demise; as the cue begins, she has hit bottom and begins her journey to the underworld. There are hints of the Eurydice theme throughout this cue.
· Orpheus Sings: This is an important moment in the Orfeo operas of the past. Sarah Ruhl’s play concentrates on Eurydice, but it does allow for the famous scene where Orpheus must charm the inhabitants of Hades as he attempts to bring his lover back to the world of the living. Onstage, Orpheus does not actually sing; he merely opens his mouth as if he is performing. This gives the composer a chance to have all the fun. Listen carefully and you will hear fragments of the Eurydice theme/motive throughout the cue. Sarah Ruhl asks for musical references to the Eurydice song in this scene, and I have done my best to carry out her wishes.