An Interview with a Composer

The musical component of our production of THE TEMPEST takes center stage in this interview with Composer John Todd, who created music that will, in turn, help to create our world in the play. John Todd is a lawyer with a passion for music living in Massachusetts. As the name suggests, he is the father of our beloved director and We Happy Few co-founder, Hannah Todd, and therefore it seemed fitting to have his help in designing the sound of the island.

WHF: How did you come to be a part of this project?

John Todd: Making music together has been a big part of our family life.  When the kids took up instruments, I composed things I could play with them or they could play with friends.  Hannah and I have been singing together since she was a toddler, and she herself has done some composing.  In fact our first collaboration was setting to music some reminiscences of my mother (Hannah’s grandmother) for her 70th birthday, and later we set some Shakespeare sonnets to music for my father’s 75th birthday. It was a natural outgrowth of that collaboration that Hannah asked me to work on this project.

WHF: Can you talk a little bit about your approach to composing music for THE TEMPEST? Was there anything in particular that inspired you or that Hannah (our director) gave you as a guide?

Todd: The Tempest is a very musical play, full of songs and Shakespeare’s own musical directions (“solemn and strange music”).  In WHF’s production, everything emanates from the actors and their bodies — the magic, the music and the evocation of the island itself; so the songs and incidental music are a cappella, without instruments.  Hannah and I talked through what she was trying to achieve in each scene and how the music or song should drive the scene and the characters; then I would try to conjure it with the music.  Some things worked right away; others, we went back and forth a bit until it felt right.

WHF: What kind of tone does your music lend to the performance?

Todd: At first, I tried to give the music a kind of Elizabethan madrigal quality (it is Shakespeare, after all), something you can hear a bit in the first song, “Full Fathom Five.”  But after a few tries, we decided to aim for something more unmoored from a particular era or style, particularly for the music “of the island” like Ariel’s and Caliban’s songs and the feast music.  It’s the interlopers whose music has roots in our world, as in the sea chanty “The Master, The Swabber.”

WHF: We are adamant that this show is not a musical. But it is a show with music. Can you explain how the music fits into the performance?

Todd: Shakespeare infused the play with music, and while the music should be subservient, at times Shakespeare has the characters themselves stop, listen and wonder as the music manifests itself.  So we didn’t have to be too shy about the music, try to hide it unobtrusively in the background, because that’s not where Shakespeare put it.  At the same time, our aim musically was to capture the mood and character of the scene, from Caliban’s harsh, otherworldly cry for release in “No more dams”, to Ariel’s hidden existential sadness in “Where the bee sucks” (“shall I live now”).

WHF: Please tell us about the timeline of preparing the music. What part will you play in the rehearsal process, if any?

Todd: I created initial versions of all the music working from Hannah’s first edit before rehearsals began; but we knew it would need to evolve as part of the very collaborative process that is at the heart of this production.  Once we had the actors – and their various voices – and as the scenes took shape, we monkeyed with the music to make it work.  Fortunately, the production has been blessed with a very talented music director, Ben Lurye, who has been able to shepherd the music through that collaboration, keeping it fully integrated with the evolving movement and direction.

WHF: Do you have a vision, or hope, of how audiences will react to Shakespeare set to your music?

Todd: While this isn’t a musical, the music should serve the same ends – it should feel like a natural outgrowth of what is happening on the stage, and bring added dimension to the characters, which is what Shakespeare wanted.  Hopefully, it also reflects the peculiar character of WHF’s vision of a clash between Prospero’s world and ours and its resolution.

WHF: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the project?

Todd: Only a father’s deep pride in what Hannah, and Raven, have accomplished, and the real joy in being part of it.

I’d like to thank John for taking time to speak with us and shed a bit more light on the musical component of our take on THE TEMPEST. Can’t picture (or hear) it? You’ll have to come to the show and experience it! Click here and get your tickets today!

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