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Friday, November 16, 2012

The man behind Sussman's music

Phil Schroeder
Composer and current MFA student Phil Schroeder contributed the music to Richard Schotter’s The Sussman Variations. Here, he tells us a little bit about his musical background, the Sussman experience, and what’s next on his plate…

KAM: For readers who don't know you, describe the musical part of your life.

PS: Most of what I still feel and respond to about music goes back to my formative years in a really wonderful and nurturing public school music department in Washington State. I was in the choir department in high school, and in many ways we had a parallel existence to the theater because everyone was a dramatist in some fashion! Singers don't have a brass instrument to hide behind, so they tend to feel more exposed even in a group setting. Without a doubt, that brought out everybody's inner actor, and I think that set the tone for things I know about group dynamics, music, and later, the theater.

I had a huge exposure to the music of the so-called Great American Songbook: Songs by Sammy Cahn, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and of course, the Gershwin brothers filled my Walkman headphones for many years, in the form of recordings by Sinatra, Nat King Cole, the Hi-Lo's, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and so many more I can't begin to name them. I still love that stuff and it became an imprint of a lot of music I'd want to write for years to come.

I spent twenty-some years in San Francisco in the business of composing music for advertising and marketing, writing just about every kind of music imaginable, but never for the theater. When we moved to Boston in 2009 (my wife accepted a position at BU), it was pretty obvious that my own business would wind down to accommodate our family changes. It also dramatically changed my musical life, and after a minor period of crisis ("Aargh! I'll never write music again!"), I found myself much more interested in the elements of music that I grew up with, which thankfully, was relatively free of marketing messages. I also knew I wanted to move toward storytelling, original ideas and working in groups. My biggest love about my old job was getting the singers and players in the studio and making very cool things happen. Theater is a process that demands this kind of collaboration, but with potential for a much more important statement.

KAM: What's it been like to apply your musical talents to a play?

PS: I'm a kid in a candy store getting writing music for a play, and especially getting to write songs with a talented lyricist like Richard. So it's been a joyful experience all around. Richard has lived around all of that NY Musical Theater influence most of his life, and his lyrics really adhere to that tradition. That gave us a lot of freedom to create a score that I hope add some beauty into this story of uncomfortable family dysfunction. I think that one thing we both learned along the way is that Charlie [Sussman] had to have been quite a good composer in order to hold up his end of the dramatic bargain. The other thing is that Charlie and Deirdre, his daughter-in-law, both play the piano a lot in the play, hers being mostly Schubert or Beethoven, and his being his own stuff. So the piano music that I wrote for Charlie had to compliment the Classical works, while keeping to the idea that there should be some consistency and musical integrity. 

But as a growing playwright, I am also very interested in the voice that the music brings to Richard's play. The piano itself feels like another character onstage and in the house during scene transitions, so I worry about the mood and tone, the notes, all of that arcane stuff that composers and playwrights worry about. Because this is Richard's play, and he's generously let me in to create a musical commentary on the action, so I want to be very sensitive about what that voice communicates. 

KAM: What's next for you?

PS: I'm pulling back on a lot of other commitments now so that I can really focus on the MFA program. The new program is a different animal now, a much better animal I think, with a lot of cross-pollination with the remarkable folks at CFA (instructors and students). This has been the missing link, I believe, for the Playwriting MFA, and it's finally here! So for me, lots of writing, lots of pushing through boundaries and hoping to have even a few small gems to show for it. I began this journey with the end goal of writing musicals, and I believe I'll get there someday. What I'm most interested in right now is how good plays work…and trying to write one!

Don't miss The Sussman Variations, now in its final weekend! Get tickets here.

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