So, I Orchestrated a Musical… (Part II)

When last we left off, I had been asked by actor/writer/director Dayjan Lesmond to join the creative team of his new musical, Back and Forth. Through the autumn of 2019, while we awaited the results of various Fringe lotteries, Dayjan sent me preliminary drafts of his first few songs, giving me ample time to sit with the material and to organize the nascent ideas for my orchestrations.

Dayjan Lesmond (centre) greets the applause of the crowd as Nightjan Productions is drawn for the 2020 Toronto Fringe Festival. Photo: Colleen Yates.

On December 3, 2019, our path became clear as we were drawn for the 2020 Toronto Fringe Festival. The Directorial Team, consisting of Dayjan as writer and director, Alanna O’Reilly as choreographer and assistant director, and yours truly as arranger/orchestrator and music director, sprung into action that very night, ducking away to a nearby bar to begin charting a course that would take us through the following months.

With our premiere set for Toronto Fringe, and an encore slated for the Winnipeg Fringe Festival immediately thereafter, my work to help Dayjan find the musical voice of Back and Forth began in earnest.

The Sound of the Show

For me, regardless of medium, the sound of a project works best when it is consistent with the overall concept of the narrative. To list examples from my own filmography, John Lives Again borrowed aesthetics and attitudes from the 1980s, The Suitcase used an internal animated movie as a framing device, and Haru’s New Year captured a yearning for home and the pang of homesickness with a stylistic homage to Japanese cinema; the directors of each asked for my scores to match those concepts accordingly.

In the case of Back and Forth, our protagonist, Cass, is an artist — a writer working on the pilot to an animated series, The Swordsman, which forms the basis of the major narrative through-line of the piece. Animation often lends itself to memorable scores written for large forces (even rendered on virtual instruments in the case of contemporary television), and is perhaps a more forgiving medium for writing music that may seem whimsical, overly emotional, or otherwise over-the-top or on-the-nose; I hold the countless hours I spent as a youngster watching cartoons responsible for having been able to turn out cues like The Frog Chase rapidly (and have fun while doing so!). Cass is also a gamer, devoting their free time to playing epic multiplayer quests with their best friend, Ben — again, another source of memorable music which has also left an indelible imprint on the DNA of my own scores.

Suffice it to say, I understood the sonic world in which Cass was steeped very well.

As I became more familiar with the show overall, I could see that Cass identified very strongly with their work (any resemblance to artists that you may know being purely coincidental, of course) to the extent, in my estimation, that they interacted with the world through the musical-narrative lens of their interests. Further, as my understanding deepened, the concept that drove my arrangements — that not only was Cass well-versed in animation, musicals, and video games, but that this was where they sought refuge and took comfort — grew in parallel.

My understanding and interpretation of Dayjan’s concept for the show — especially because we were representing such lush pools of music as animation and video games — led me to write for a 14-piece pit orchestra in order to adequately cover timbres across all instrumental families: three reeds (with Broadway-style doublings*), four brass, three strings, one bass (doubling upright and electric), one keyboard, and two percussionists.

*In concert music and film score, woodwind musicians, in addition to playing their primary instrument, can be asked to perform double duty by playing auxiliary instruments of the same kind (e.g., a flautist could be expected to also play piccolo or alto flute, an oboist could double on English horn, etc.). However, Broadway wind parts (or “reed books”) commonly have less usual combinations (e.g., a “Reed I” player could be asked to double on flute, piccolo, clarinet, and saxophone all in the same show).

On a Fringe budget and timeframe, having a live ensemble for this version of the show would not be feasible. However, as we considered this to be a proof-of-concept for a larger production in the future, and since Dayjan was satisfied with the sound of the backing track that I had written for “Time for Me,” then rendering the accompaniment on virtual instruments would suffice.

Notwithstanding that if I’m only being asked to produce backing tracks without the need for the music to be performed live, then technically the instrumentation can be whatever I want. However, since our overall ambition for Back and Forth saw Toronto Fringe as a checkpoint, not a destination, my contribution would include planning for the future; if I wanted to have a hope of ever seeing this realized with an ensemble of real musicians, I knew that I had to keep the instrumentation (relatively) manageable and reasonable, and the writing playable and idiomatic.

In the face of shrinking budgets and changing aesthetics, a 14-piece ensemble feels like a luxury. Indeed, the sound of contemporary musical theatre tends more towards adopting a small form-factor for accompaniment. Some of my favourite examples include Urinetown (comp. Mark Hollmann, orch. Bruce Coughlin) with five, Avenue Q (comp. Jeff Marks and Robert Lopez, orch. Stephen Oremus) and Waitress (comp. Sarah Bareilles, orch. Nadia DiGiallonardo) both with six, and Come From Away (comp. Irene Sankoff and David Hein, orch. August Eriksmoen) with nine. Even Hamilton (comp. Lin-Manuel Miranda, orch. Alex Lacamoire) makes do with ten on Broadway (11 when it was here in Toronto) — definitely a far cry from when Phantom (comp. Andrew Lloyd Webber, orch. David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber) opened in Toronto with 29 (plus conductor)!

…and yet, within those orchestrations, you largely find that they are consistent with the show’s concept: Avenue Q contains the core essence of a certain long-running children’s television show, Waitress sounds like what you could fit inside a diner, Come From Away a ceilidh band… and Phantom was the grandeur of the Paris Opera… plus synthesizer and drum machine (okay, so it doesn’t have to be literal).

However, Back and Forth is not a rock musical, neither would a small band or combo match the concept of the show as it stands today. While the balance of pit ensembles is admittedly skewing smaller compared to the mega-musicals of yesteryear, musicals boasting pit complements of around 14 are not unheard of, even among contemporary productions — including one that also got its start at the Toronto Fringe, The Drowsy Chaperone (comp. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, orch. Larry Blank).

This core of 14 formed the basis of our sonic framework. Dayjan further requested that I refrain from the now-standard practice of filling out the more intimate chamber orchestra sound with additional keyboards (to give, for example, the illusion of a larger string ensemble without the need for hiring commensurately more live musicians), and I was happy to agree. As much as I am capable of writing for the sound of 50-piece orchestras (and as much as I’d really like more brass in some of the tunes), this was not the time; we’ll save that for the 25th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. 😉

Enough Dreaming – Back to Reality!

Our next checkpoint would be our audition process, scheduled for early February of 2020, by which time I would need to produce a slate of arrangements to serve as callback materials for each of our five principal characters. With the Procrastination Fairy’s zany “Time for Me” solo already complete, I set to work on the remaining four: “Boss Fight,” a video game-inspired trio led by Ben, “We’re Done,” a smoky jazz-blues number to represent Cass’ harried agent, Ace, “You’re Enough,” an eleven-o’clock number for Cass’ therapist, Dr. Grace, and “Back and Forth,” the title song of the show itself, for Cass.

However, as I was already working on two films, Joey Boy (dir. Mark Matechuk) and Double Edged (dir. Cliona Concetta), plus finishing the Christmas season as the director of the Rosewood Consort and actively preparing for an ambitious year ahead, all while actively managing the concerns and limitations of my health, I would only have a scant few weeks in which to complete this round of arrangements.

My arranging process for each song remained essentially the same as it had been on “Time for Me” a few months earlier, starting with Dayjan sending me a demo recording of him singing the vocal lines and a rough draft piano/vocal score. I would then study the script to glean insight about context and motivation, and, perhaps most importantly, how the number served to further the plot. From there, I would find musical ways, such as using a recurring instrument, motif, or chord progression, to build characterization and link everything in the narrative together. I would look for lyrics where I could get away with injecting my particular sense of humour, or think of moments that I could set up for Alanna to highlight with her choreography. All of these ideas would inform my musical choices, from the broader artistic strokes of instrumentation and texture to more technical aspects like reharmonization and interpolating countermelodies.

With all of this in mind, I would then craft my arrangements by musically painting around Dayjan’s vocals. As Dayjan himself is an expert singer, his rough vocal demos were not only a delight to work with — even the ones in which he needed to sing outside of his normal baritone register! — but they were also a boon to my process: the ideas he had shared over coffee were suddenly all the more tangible for me, and in turn, hearing his ideas fleshed out with a proper accompaniment (albeit realized with virtual instruments) made this show all the more real for him.

As with “Time for Me,” Dayjan granted me the latitude to go completely off the page and rebuild the accompaniment for each song in the manner that would best express his intentions (within our stated parameters, of course). While Dayjan characterized my process of writing the arrangements as reading his mind, I would tend to describe it more as listening.

I would often let my mind wander to the balcony of some imagined theatre in a hopeful future, in which I could see and hear every detail of the fully-staged Broadway production of Back and Forth. The costumes, lighting, and choreography for every scene appeared in my mind’s eye, and, perhaps more pertinently, every note of the orchestrations resounded in the playhouse of my mind. In the end, as I mentioned in my previous entry, my inspiration largely came from unearthing the core essence of the songs themselves, and, exactly as with my arrangement of “Time for Me,” it felt akin to remembering the music that was supposed to be there; all I had to do was listen.

After completing each arrangement, I would send a new demo recording back to Dayjan, this one featuring his vocals accompanied by my virtual 14-piece pit orchestra, for his approval. Once approved, I would transition from arranger to orchestrator, transcribing my virtual orchestrations into a fully-engraved score to serve as a final proofread of my arrangements. This also enabled me to make decisions about interpretation (such as dynamics, articulations, stylistic markings, etc.) in preparation for a future iteration in which we get to perform everything live; when the time comes, everything will be ready (or, at least, we will have a very good starting point!). More practically, however, the engraved score would form the basis of my last step: translating my arrangement into a piano reduction in order to create a piano/vocal book from which the singers would learn their parts (and from which, as music director, I would conduct the performers in rehearsal).

One arranging decision that I made early on, inspired by the memorable melodies that Dayjan had written for this show (and perhaps influenced by the strength of his demo performances), was to allow the vocal lines to stand on their own, rather than following the time-honoured practice of having the accompaniment double the singers in unison (which often makes it sound like you’re trying to help them stay in tune!). Maintaining the independence of the vocal lines in this way would make the songs more challenging to learn on a tight rehearsal schedule and potentially more risky to perform, but would absolutely highlight the musicianship of our performers in the end, provided we could pull it off (and, for my part, free up valuable instrumental lines for the rich accompaniment I was planning. Everybody wins!). All we would need to do in order to accomplish this feat is find a cast of strong singers.

No pressure!

Auditions

A casting call went out in mid-January of 2020. For what could easily be written off as “just a Fringe show,” an overwhelming proportion of our applicants pleasantly surprised us with CVs that boasted impressive credits and credentials; we found that what looked at first blush to be “overqualified” on paper often translated into a strong performance from an eminently qualified candidate. As each of us on the Directorial Team had been on the other side of the table before, Dayjan, Alanna, and I were committed to engendering as positive and congenial an atmosphere as possible to set our candidates at ease, and we did our best to see past their inevitable nerves. Without revealing too much about our methodology, the casting process for me illustrated the merit in a candidate being prepared, having the ability to project a feeling of being comfortable in the room with us, and delivering an outstanding performance that felt truly genuine (rather than imitative). After auditioning so many skilled candidates, I certainly came away with a greater appreciation for what a film director might go through when hiring a composer!

We finished our initial round of casting fully satisfied that we would take the stage that summer with an incredibly strong cast. As we selected our short-list of candidates, I hurried to put the finishing touches on our callback repertoire; in addition to the songs for our five principals, I was asked to arrange a short group number representing the pitch of Cass’ show, The Swordsman, just in case we needed it. Song by song, Back and Forth slowly quickly took shape.

Dayjan’s giddy excitement at hearing his work performed live for the first time was absolutely palpable (and for me, quite nostalgic). We thrilled at several of our candidates being practically the embodiment of our characters, and loved the variety of interpretations that the applicants brought to the roles.

However, as Back and Forth is semi-autobiographical, the role that required the greatest consideration was that of the lead, Cass. Dayjan, as the author of the work, was very particular about many aspects of the character, especially the written vocal range and his preference to cast a BIPOC actor in the role. However, finding Dayjan’s clone — especially someone who was available for not only our rehearsals in the spring, but also for the runs in both Toronto and Winnipeg (representing almost all of July) — was no easy task. We extended our deadlines and launched additional casting calls to search specifically for our Cass. We came close a couple of times, but we found ourselves headed into March without a lead.

We thought back to a promotional performance that we had organized during the holiday season. Dayjan and Alanna put together a skit in which the Procrastination Fairy (portrayed by Alanna) threw Twelve Days of Distractions at a certain artist (portrayed by Dayjan) before breaking into a spirited rendition of “Time for Me,” which you can enjoy here:

…but no, Dayjan remained adamant about not playing Cass at Fringe under any circumstances.

At the same time, our search turned up a late applicant — a classically-trained treble-voiced Latinx performer — to whom we offered an audition for one last swing/ensemble/understudy role to round out our cast. When we heard her sing, however, we immediately thought back to Alanna’s performance as the Fairy in Days of Distraction: it demonstrated a certain flexibility in the character, and even though the Fairy was originally written as a baritone, Alanna’s rendition effectively gave us permission to consider (and ultimately cast) a treble to play the role in our upcoming production.

Standing there in the audition room, the three of us collectively realized that if the Procrastination Fairy is meant to be a mirror for Cass (singing, “I’m you, don’t you see?”), and if we could have a treble Fairy, then why couldn’t we have a treble Cass?

On March 11, 2020, we breathed a sigh of relief as we confirmed our Cass. Cassting — excuse me, casting was now all but complete, two more song arrangements had been written in the interim, and rehearsals were soon to commence…

The members of the Back and Forth: The Musical Directorial Team (L-R: Alanna O’Reilly, David Federman, Dayjan Lesmond) are all smiles at the conclusion of auditions. Photo: Chihiro Nagamatsu.

…when the global COVID-19 outbreak forced an abrupt shutdown to live theatre.

End of Act Two

Enjoy the intermission, and come back next week for Act Three!

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