The current Tony Awards cycle is one rife with anomalies (continuing into 2021, for instance, despite representing a 2019–2020 season cut short) and uncertainties (including when they’ll even take place). Despite these pandemic-induced quirks, one Tony Awards first is guaranteed: the Best Original Score winner will be the first to not hail from a musical.
That’s because all five of the nominated scores were written for non-musical plays. Plays have appeared in the category in eight previous years, including in the past two seasons. But this year, they dominate the field year. Of the musicals that had opened prior the shutdown and deemed eligible, three (Moulin Rouge!, Jagged Little Pill, and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical) were comprised of pre-existing scores; the only other musical, The Lightning Thief was shut out of nomination day.
READ: What’s Bizarre About the 2020 Tony Nominations?
In musicals, the score is a defining component of the language of the show. In plays, music can be crucial, but perhaps not as embedded into the audiences' theatregoing experience. And typically, Best Original Score contenders can showcase their material outside the theatre though cast recordings or TV appearances. Combine an absence of these opportunities with a prolonged shutdown for a particularly peculiar category.
Read and listen on below as the composers of each of the five nominated scores—A Christmas Carol, The Inheritance, The Rose Tattoo, Slave Play, and The Sound Inside—share excerpts from their work and offer some enlightenments on their inspirations and processes.
A Christmas Carol
Composer: Christopher Nightingale
Track: “The Possibilities of Love” (also known “informally and slightly brutally as 'The Coffin'”)
When in the play is this cue heard?
Christopher Nightingale: This music is heard as Scrooge contemplates his death as the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him his coffin. She conjures up his younger self, and Scrooge watches as he, as a young boy, plays with his favorite toy and dreams of a bright future. “What would you have him become?” the Ghost of Christmas Future asks him. “A scientist, a teacher, a watchmaker, a shopkeeper, a politician, a singer, a writer, an adventurer!” Scrooge realizes that “I want him to love.” Finally, his coffin is wheeled away as he looks on.
What mood or tone does this piece represent to you?
I wanted this piece to evoke a sense of nostalgia. In general, I was inspired by Christmas carols, the simplicity of their melodies and harmonies. Carols tend to sound familiar even on first listening, and it seemed appropriate somehow that Scrooge himself is ascribed his own. He finally allows himself to love his former, younger self. I think he has forgotten how to love and only now realizes what he's lost. I hoped that the music would not only support Scrooge’s regret but also underscore the hope of the younger Scrooge as he dreams of his future.
What instrumentation is featured on this track?
The piece features piano, violin, clarinet, cello and whistle. I liked the idea of a Victorian parlor chamber-type group for the orchestration. Folk music was a strong influence too, and the whistle was a much played instrument at that time alongside melodion, also featuring quite a lot throughout the show. All the music in the show is performed live—something I’m very happy about.
Composer: Paul Englishby
Track: “The Inheritance”
When is this title piece used in the play?
Paul Englishby: This track begins with a soft, chordal pattern, which is first heard as Walter’s house (a major character in the play) is revealed. It’s a place of refuge, heartbreak, memory, and love. This is followed by a sequence which underscores a devastating roll call of victims of the HIV virus, described in music by tendrils of counterpoint signifying the terrifying, exponentially rising death count. The track ends with a benign, beautiful haunting, as Eric Glass returns to Walter’s house to be met by the ghosts of the young men who died there.
Did Stephen Daldry’s direction and/or Matthew Lopez’s writing inform or inspire your work?
It’s important for me that my theatre scores match the design and staging. So for The Inheritance, I strove for a simple, clear, emotionally direct sound, to complement the very clean, sparse set, as well as a sound palette that would sit well under dialogue. The play spans decades, and with very few physical signposts to tell us where and when the action is taking place (and with actors often inhabiting more than one part), the score provides an important storytelling device by evoking time or place, or a character at a certain time of life.
How was the score orchestrated and recorded?
The music is scored for a distant, dreamlike piano, bells, strings and subtle electronic textures. It was all recorded at my U.K. studio in Brighton. I was able to bring a small mobile set up with me to the theatre, so during technical rehearsals I could add to, edit, or write new music as the play came to life under the lights. As well as specific musical moments and themes, we often underscore dialogue with extremely soft, sometimes imperceptible music, to color the air and create an atmosphere of longing, or lust, grief, or compassion.
The Rose Tattoo
Composers: Fitz Patton and Jason Michael Webb
Track: Various Selections
How does music contribute to the storytelling of The Rose Tattoo?
Fitz Patton: The role of the music in The Rose Tattoo is to bring the rich cultural and spiritual past of these Sicilian immigrants to life. The music takes every form, from accompanying the cast of singers, which range from one to eight, to gestural underscore under dialogue, to metaphoric storms of sound, and music woven together to give voice to the poetic dreamworld that holds the play and the place.
What were some of your musical inspirations?
My approach with the song settings was resonant with my particular love of the playing of José González, whose style is affected by America minimalism and Cat Stevens. In addition, I was strongly touched by the music of the Spanish master composer Francisco Tarrega and the Cuban master composer Leo Brouwer.
How is the music orchestrated and performed in the show?
It’s a single classical guitarist. We had recorded the score, but discovered on the second day of rehearsal in the theatre that we were required by [musicians’ union] Local 802 to play the score live. So, we hired a fantastic guitarist [Jonathan Linden] that day and he learned to play it overnight. From that point on, we rehearsed and performed the play with a live musician. The musical storm cue that you hear in the track had to be created live each night. For the recorded cue, I’d used various effects in software (reverb echo and delay), which now had to be replicated live. We found just the right combination of guitar pedals and, over the course of a few days, the musician was able to replicate the entire effect of the composition. See what you think when you hear it.
Composer: Lindsay Jones
When do we encounter this selection?
Lindsay Jones: Audiences hear it a couple of times, actually. It’s in the preshow music as you walk into the theatre, and it’s also one of the transition cues from one scene to another inside of Act 1.
How does this music put us into the world of Slave Play?
What we wanted to evoke was the sounds we would be hearing if we were working on a plantation in the 1800s. So this piece contains a number of sounds of workers working in the field, horses, men giving commands, and outside sounds. At the same time, there is the music of a distant piano, as if someone is entertaining themselves by playing the piano in the main house, while everyone else is out working in the field. I went and listened to all kinds of parlor piano pieces that people used to play for their leisure. It’s simultaneously meant to put us literally in this location and time, but it’s also meant to be a metaphor for how some are privileged enough to avoid the hard labor that others experience. For this reason, it’s very important that the listener hear the music in context with the other sounds, and not just as a piece of music alone.
How did your work evolve throughout the production process?
I joined Slave Play on the day before the first technical rehearsal, as the previous designer was unable to continue with the production. I walked into the show with no ideas whatsoever about the show and was immediately blown away by the play when I saw it for the first time. As a result, the entire score and sound design was written while we were in tech, working through the play in real time. While this was a terrifying way to create material with no preparation in front of an entire room full of people, [director] Robert O’Hara, [playwright] Jeremy O. Harris, the acting company, and creative team could not have been more supportive and collaborative for this process. We continued to refine and shape the music and sound at every rehearsal, and really challenged ourselves every day to find the most authentic version of this play and its elements that we could.
The Sound Inside
Composer: Daniel Kluger
Track: “To Lie Face Down in a Field Full of Snow”
When in the show do audiences hear this selection?
Daniel Kluger: This music cue scores a climactic moment at the end of the play, supporting an image of a young man alone in a snowy field.
What mood does this piece evoke in that moment?
I wanted the score to hold a space of elemental frailty, loneliness, and surrender. The play is about a surprisingly intimate relationship between a teacher and a student, and that relationship feels dangerous and surprising and metaphysical. Both the teacher and the student deal with confronting their own fears of mortality and intimacy, so I wanted to make a piece of music that could hold that space with them without telegraphing too much emotion, because the aesthetics of the play are very quiet and delicate.
How is the music orchestrated and performed?
I actually orchestrated this piece a few different times throughout the process. I wrote it on the piano, but then was searching for the right size and voice of the ensemble. What we ended up with is piano and string quartet, performed by the fabulous Momenta Quartet, with whom I’ve had the privilege to collaborate many times.