Broadway's Not So Incidental Music for Stick Fly, The Mountaintop and More

By Stuart Miller
09 Dec 2011

Alicia Keys
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Their songs are usually the stars, but these musicians have little trouble subsuming their egos for the good of the play. "I want the music to complement the play," Keys says. "Mine shouldn't be the loudest voice."

"I love when plays use music in cinematic ways...instead of just transitions," says Lippa, though he adds, "What made me so happy with Farnsworth was that nobody really noticed the music."

Blanchard goes even further, saying, "My manager and agent will strangle me, but I prefer people didn't even know that I'm the composer on these shows."

The musicians are also thrilled to be tackling new creative challenges. Keys, who grew up going to Broadway with her mother, dreams of writing a musical, but jumped at the chance to work on Stick Fly. "I want to do things that take me out of my comfort zone," she says. (She is also one of the producers of the play.)

Blanchard echoes Keys, saying, "Going outside my realm inspires me." (For Motherf**ker, he created more electronic and ambient sound than what one might expect from a trumpeter.)

The process itself is an education. Marsalis says that with Fences, he started writing the music while on tour, but Leon urged him to see Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in rehearsal. He grumbled a little, but rearranged his schedule to fly in to New York. "When I did, I realized the music [in the later part of the play] was all wrong — the emotions were based on how I felt about the play from reading it, but the emotional template of the music had to match that of the actors," he says. "I started rewriting it on the plane ride right afterward." The effort paid off in the form of a 2010 Tony nomination for Best Original Score, a category historically reserved for musicals.

Their success with Fences led Leon and Marsalis to their Mountaintop collaboration. But it too had its problems to solve. Marsalis says his first try with the Mountaintop music sounded like a theme from a spy movie. "At first I thought it was great, but the more I listened to it the more it sucked," he says.

Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier suggested Marsalis try something sparser. Marsalis wanted it to revolve around the trumpet, to reflect King's clarion call for justice. (He's not the first to have latched on to this symbol: a collection of King speeches is titled "The Trumpet of Conscience," an acclaimed biography is "Let the Trumpet Sound.") "I woke up the next morning and said, 'That's it, it has to be a trumpet and nothing else but a bass pedal.'"

Adds Marsalis, "I listened to and listened to Aaron Copland's 'Quiet City' and over time, my melody just wrote itself."

There was one final piece to the puzzle: the part needed a performer. Marsalis asked director Leon if it was okay to give this gig to his brother, who would go uncredited. In this case, a little nepotism seemed justified. "As soon as he asked, I said, 'Sure,'" Leon says. "I was thrilled to have Wynton play the part."

Previous 1 | 2