PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Joshua Schmidt

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Joshua Schmidt Few theatre composers are introduced to the public with the sudden adulation that has been bequeathed on The Adding Machine's young Joshua Schmidt.
Joshua Schmidt
Joshua Schmidt Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The unlikely musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's landmark 1923 expressionistic play, written in collaboration with co-librettist Jason Loewith, artistic director of Chicago's Next Theatre Company, premiered at that theatre in February 2007 to enthusiastic reviews. That reception was repeated when the show opened Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre last month. If you knew Schmidt before last year, you are probably a regular in the Chicago and Milwaukee theatre scenes, and you knew him only as a busy sound designer, working for such companies as Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Writers Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Milwaukee Rep, Madison Rep and Theatre X. The prolix 31-year-old composer, whose program bio says he is Milwaukee-based, and whose website says he is Brooklyn-based (both are true actually) talked to Playbill.com about the responsibilities of a composer and the difference between, style vs. voice, and dissonance vs. atonality.

Playbill.com: How did you first get involved with The Adding Machine? Joshua Schmidt: I was working at the Next Theatre, sound designing a production of Caryl Churchill's Far Away and Jason Loewith must have liked what he heard. He came up to me and said, "I've always had the idea of turning The Adding Machine into a musical. Would you do it? If you write it, we'll produce it." So I said yes. And then I read the play. (Laughs)

Playbill.com: Had you ever written a musical before?
JS: No.

Playbill.com: You're a sound designer primarily.
JS: Well, I'm a composer. And part of being a composer in this day and age is being able to rise up to the challenge of any gig presented to you or otherwise you don't eat. On the job, I have learned some of the fine art of sound design. My main gig is going around to a lot of regional theatres and creating soundscapes and such.

Playbill.com: So you read the play and...
JS: I read the first scene and said, "Oh, God." Well, this is what [Jason] wants. The great thing about not dealing with a visual source material, like a movie, is you're presented with text right there in front of you. And you have a myriad of choices of what you're going to do. Do you shove a wedge between certain sections and say "I'm going to insert a song here and we're going to write lyrics that fit within the framework of the text"? Or are you going to use the text as it is? What are you going to do? With Elmer Rice, there are many words to choose from. He writes almost musically on the page, with a certain repetition; he adheres to certain phrases that return and repeat. With that first scene [a long harangue by the wife of the lead character, Mr. Zero], in order to write the music, you have to organize the text in a way that you can write music to it. In this case, that meant taking a highlighter and highlighting all my favorite passages, and then finding a lyrical framework.

Joel Hatch in Adding Machine
photo by Carol Rosegg

Playbill.com: Is all the text in the score the words of Elmer Rice?
JS: Virtually. Playbill.com: When you had read the whole play, did you go back to Jason and ask why he thought it would make a good musical?
JS: No, I knew. I think he was very keenly aware of some of my other sound-design work. It wasn't just completely coming out of the blue. He knew what some of my songs sounded like. He also knew I had this whole other life writing formal composition and a lot of new music. It wasn't just a shot in the dark.

Playbill.com: How did you settle upon the style of music you wanted to use?
JS: Well, there is no style. There is definitely theme. I'm 31 years old — I'm not interested so much in style; I'm interested in voice. [Novelist] Philip Roth has a voice when he writes; it's not so much a style. Style, to me, is something that people in Milan and New York change every year to fit the trends. I'm not interested in trends. The first and foremost responsibility I have as a composer is to find an appropriate approach and attack that's faithful to the text I've been assigned to adapt. I'm not necessarily doing a good thing if I sit there and say, "Well, it doesn't matter what I do. I'm going to do what I want," and don't listen to anything that the play is telling me I should think about. As a composer, if you allow the piece to speak to you a little bit, what you end up doing is writing and conceiving things you might never have thought of before. Part of this [instinct] comes from jumping around, doing The Cherry Orchard one month and The Grapes of Wrath the next. You're not going to get the opportunity to write the same music for each show. In Elmer Rice's writing, he wanted to convey an emotional experience. And that is why the play is so wild. Each scene that he writes is written in a very different style. Some is surrealistic, some is naturalistic, some is absurd, some is very funny. In keeping with what the play is doing, I allowed myself to draw upon all the musical experiences I've had up to this point, be they playing in rock bands or jazz bands or working in the theatre — you name it.

Playbill.com: Do you have any composers you admire?
JS: Too many to name.

Playbill.com: Was there any composer in particular you kept in mind while you were writing the piece?
JS: I'll tell you one thing. And everybody rolls their eyes when I say this. But one of the things that is consistently written in the critical reviews of this piece is the word "atonality." There is not a single passage of atonal music in this play. Not one. There is tons of melody in this show. People confuse dissonance, which is all over this play, with atonality. And the words people are saying in this show are not necessarily pretty. Nobody's playing nice.

Playbill.com: Were you surprised by the positive critical reaction, first in Chicago and now in New York?
JS: Yes, I was. I thought it would be more polarizing. Which is kind of the ultimate goal in this business, to create something that promotes discussion and strong feeling.

Playbill.com: Are you working on a new musical?
JS: There's a new project on the way that will be markedly different from Adding Machine. It's an adaptation of Bernard Shaw's Candida. It was commissioned by the Writers Theatre of Glencoe. I'm halfway done.

Joel Hatch and Amy Warren in a scene from <i>The Adding Machine.</i>
Joel Hatch and Amy Warren in a scene from The Adding Machine.
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