So, I Orchestrated a Musical…

I found something in my sport coat the other day.

I was on my way to attend a live performance when I noticed something left behind from the last time I wore that jacket. I don’t know if it just didn’t consciously occur to me that it had been hanging in my closet untouched for more than two and a half years — I used to wear this coat to events all the time! — but I guess I was just surprised to have found anything in there at all.

Tell me you haven’t worn something in over two years without telling me you haven’t worn something in over two years.

Tucked away in my inner jacket pocket was my ticket to Hamilton, dated Friday, March 13, 2020, 8:00 p.m. curtain. It would be the final performance of that company; Mirvish stages closed the following day.

In that moment, the distance of the past two-and-a-half years hit me, and I remembered just how abruptly life had come to a screeching halt. There it was: my second-last night out before Toronto instituted widespread lockdown protocols, perfectly preserved. For my coat, at least, life stood still, and I was finally pressing the play button after over two years of pause.

For those of you who have been wondering where I’ve been lately, most of my energy this year has been devoted to picking things up where we left off before the pandemic. While it’s true that, as Flaherty and Ahrens said, “We can never go back to before,” the desire to reclaim that which has been lost is a very human response. As we move forward, it is only natural to try to reforge a connection to what we had and what we did, to say nothing of who and what we were, before so many things were suddenly interrupted; this is part of our healing process as we emerge from the haze of the past two years.

Welcome back to the Podium.

Back in 2020, one of the projects that I had been looking forward to the most represented making a real foray into the world of musical theatre. I was hired on as the arranger/orchestrator and music director of a new stage musical called Back and Forth (book, music, and lyrics by Dayjan Lesmond), which follows an artist, Cass, as they literally fight against their procrastination while striving to create their best work… tomorrow.

(…and, by the way, there is a dragon.)

…but before I go any further into the show, first, a bit of background.

In addition to my steady diet of classical music, film scores, and video game music, I was raised with a deep affection for musical theatre (helped in no small part by also coming of age during the Disney Renaissance). I grew up with cast albums and greatest hits compilations close at hand; one of my favourite childhood activities was to put on the LP of The Phantom of the Opera (the Original London Cast, no less) and follow along with the libretto, spending countless hours listening and reading along with rapt attention. I am lucky to have grown up at a time when Toronto was a particularly robust theatre hub, home to not only pre-Broadway tryouts and US National Tours, but also to lavish productions that would run for years.

As a child, I also took private violin lessons from two musicians who just so happened to play in the pit orchestra of the long-running Toronto production of Phantom in its early years, which a very young me thought was the coolest thing ever (and I’m all but certain that my teachers were equal parts amused and annoyed by my insistence on noodling those tunes by ear during my lessons). On the playground, I nerded out with kids who were even bigger fans of musicals than I (including one precocious classmate who would write new lyrics to popular showtunes for school assignments). Years later, I would end my high school career as the concertmaster of the pit orchestra, even contributing an orchestration to that year’s musical theatre revue!

Yet, as the years went on, to borrow from a certain popular contemporary musical, I perpetually found myself on the outside, always looking in. In parallel with my emerging career as a composer, I had tried to translate my interest in theatre and experience with writing and conducting into working on musicals in various capacities. Yet, while I certainly gained useful experience with these opportunities, none of them ever seemed to gain much of any traction.

It Sounds Like You Could Use an Orchestrator

One late September night in 2019, an actor with whom I was acquainted by the name of Dayjan Lesmond excitedly told me about a song that he had written as part of an upcoming show. He went on to explain that he planned to perform it with a flashmob of singers at Nuit Blanche a little more than a week later, and that he was looking for someone who could produce a backing track for him. After a little further prodding to find out what I could do to help him bridge the gap between what he had and what he needed, I turned to him and said that it sounded like he could use an orchestrator.

With no time to waste, Dayjan sent me a rough demo recording and a copy of a barebones piano/vocal score for a song called “Time for Me,” sung by a puckish character called the Procrastination Fairy. Trusting that the inside of my head sounded like what he really meant, he gave me free rein to completely rework the arrangement to express his true artistic intentions — or, at least, my interpretation thereof.

I am, as you know, no stranger to tight deadlines. However, this opportunity came when I was barely seven months post-concussion; my condition was still wildly unpredictable, everything that I had done to that point in my rehabilitation had come as a struggle, and I only had a short window in which to turn this track around.

To my surprise, as soon as I listened to his rough demo, I heard the Procrastination Fairy spring to life and every note of the fully-fledged accompaniment burst into my mind’s ear! It felt like something had unlocked in my still-fractured memory, as if I was remembering the music that was supposed to be there. In an uncharacteristic burst of clarity and lucidity (but a welcome return to form!), I worked at lightning speed, completing the arrangement of the two-minute song within 24 hours.

Working Backwards (and Forthwards?)

Just as I do when I am scoring a film, I prepared a track for Dayjan with a full and complete instrumentation, as close to fully-produced as possible, and ready for the screen (or stage… or street corner, in this case). In other words, I gave him the end result first.

Notwithstanding that this is precisely what was required, this is apparently backwards — at least, when it comes to musicals.

The process of developing a new musical often takes years at the best of times. I am given to understand that it typically begins with writing the show for piano accompaniment alone, and that only through the iterative process of workshops and development does orchestration get more involved, gradually adding instruments according to need, vision, and budget — mostly budget.

…and here I am with the audacity to skip a few steps — notably the parts where I get to haggle with producers over the number of musicians I can write for. Yet, Dayjan and I knew exactly where we wanted to end up, given the nature of the themes and concepts explored through the narrative, as well as the overall scope and style of the show.

That said, what I was doing was for not even a demo, but a demo of a demo, something done for fun at Nuit Blanche… and I only had a few days to complete it. No time for iteration or development; I had a song to arrange.

A few weeks later, Dayjan asked me to meet with him for coffee. I had passed the audition, and he asked me formally to come on board as his arranger/orchestrator.

The Next Stage

As a composer primarily for collaborative media, my primary and overarching goal for every project is to find the correct sound for the story, often delving deep into the narrative to unearth its very soul and understand every nuance as well as my creative partner does. As the arranger and orchestrator for Back and Forth, my objective was essentially the same: to find the soul of the story and the sound that would properly support the narrative.

As an arranger, I have a hand in shaping the structure of the songs, and I enrich the melodies by interpreting, interpolating, and intuiting harmonies and countermelodies. As an orchestrator, I am responsible for selecting the instrumentation that builds a cohesive sonic palette for the entire show, sculpting moments throughout the musical experience to support the action and propel the plot.

In all of these instances, I am a member of the narrative team. Whether the writer, director, and I are joined by a cinematographer or a choreographer, our overall objective remains the same: to not only tell the story, but to tell the truth of the story; my job is to do so with music.

Over coffee, Dayjan walked me through the plot of the entire production, playing all of his rough demos for me and asking for my feedback and input. He spoke at length about his plans for this production, indicating that he planned to enter Fringe lotteries all over the country, and that he aimed to put together a concert-style staged reading of about half of the songs in the show for publicity purposes. He was resolved, one way or another, to find a stage for this show.

I came away from our meeting with a lot of ideas to let percolate over the following weeks. As Dayjan assembled more of his creative team and finalized more of his songs, I spent my time considering the overall sound palette for the show, and how that would develop and evolve over the course of the narrative. We would need something that sounded like a lighthearted showtune in one scene, could appropriately represent video games in another, and then we would later have a Latin number — stylistically, this show couldn’t sit still! — but it would all make sense in context.

It was my responsibility to make it all make sense in context.

However, as dutifully supportive and encouraging of Dayjan’s unbridled enthusiasm as I was, I knew that it would take more than mere excitement to actually put on a show. Getting into a Fringe festival would be an ideal springboard for a production like this, granting us a stage, a scheduled run, and production support in a relatively low-stakes environment, but it would take a boatload of luck to be drawn for one. Despite Dayjan’s determination to get this show mounted regardless of the outcome of the various Fringe lotteries that we had entered, nothing about the show for me was going to be material until it materialized.

Then, in early December, we were selected for the 2020 Toronto Fringe Festival in their annual lottery. We were in! It was real! I…

The Directorial Team of Back and Forth: The Musical. L-R: David Federman, Dayjan Lesmond, Alanna O’Reilly. Photo: Colleen Yates.

…suddenly had a lot of work to do.

End of Act One

Come back next week for Act Two!

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