With Matthew Lopez’s multi-Olivier winning The Inheritance now in its final weeks on Broadway The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with composer Paul Englishby about creating the play’s achingly beautiful music.
Scoring for theatre, film, television, dance and opera, Englishby is perhaps best known for his BAFTA-nominated work on BBC’s Luther starring Idris Elba. His jazz inflected music for David Hare’s film Page Eight earned him an Emmy, with other screen work including his orchestral score for An Education, 2015’s A Royal Night Out starring Rupert Everett and the Quentin Crisp biopic An Englishman in New York starring John Hurt. Paul is an Associate Artist for the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company for whom he has written many scores for productions such as Imperium and The Tempest.
As an orchestrator, conductor and pianist, Paul has worked with some of the UK’s leading ensembles including the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra. He previously collaborated with The Inheritance director Stephen Daldry composing scores for the West End and Broadway hits The Audience and Skylight.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: In what ways did The Inheritance resonate with you and why was it something you wanted to be involved in?
Paul Englishby: “When I first saw a run through of the play it really floored me. As well as the work’s depth and emotional punch, it felt so fresh and vibrant in terms it’s stagecraft. It manages to tell an epic and vital story with very few frills in terms of production. It relies on every tiny detail in the vocal delivery and physicality, and of course the group cohesion. Some of the ensemble work is close to choreography. I felt I could add something very simple and evocative that would match the production style, support the emotional moments when required, and provide different subtle musical colours to a visually bright white performance space.”
You came joined the production relatively late in the process didn’t you, can you give us an insight into your collaboration with director Stephen Daldry in creating the music for the play?
“I’d worked with Stephen previously on The Audience and Skylight, amongst other things, so I was used to the way he worked during technical and preview periods, where all the elements come together. Having seen the play in rehearsal, I provided some demo versions of ideas. I concentrated on some of the character themes and theatrical moments in the play, and we’d discuss the orchestration, melodic content or busyness of the music, and generally tended to pair it all back. During the tech and previews I would add cues, or tiny sonic fragments, where the drama required it or to underscore speeches, or rewrite existing cues that weren’t quite working.”
Did you also have a dialogue with playwright Matthew Lopez while you were composing or just with his words? Generally, is it just the director you’ll work with rather than the playwright or screenwriter?
“Matthew was very approachable, but would let Stephen do the directing in terms of production; by that I mean, set, music, sound and lighting. I’m sure he fed his thoughts through Stephen, and Justin Martin the Associate Director, and he was always good at letting me know when he liked something I’d done. That’s generally the best way to work, rather than having too many voices giving you direction. That is something that happens sometimes, when the writer is in the room, and it can be a little confusing if the opinions are at odds.”
You’ve composed music for a lot of Shakespeare productions, is it a different process when you’re creating music for a new piece of writing rather than a familiar classic?
“The main difference is that with a new play, the actual content and form of the work can be changing until very late on, including the addition of new sections or cuts, reordering of scenes et cetera, which all effect the creative teams’ work. With Shakespeare, people do cut, and sometimes, rarely, change scene orders, but on the whole, you’re dealing with an existing form. But new play or extant, the productions are always new, so one starts from scratch in terms of style and musical content, so in that way, there is no difference.”
Sound and music are used with beautiful subtly in The Inheritance, it’s never overbearing and never feels manipulative. At times I felt like we were being given permission to cry, weep even…reassured that it was OK to do so. How intentional was that?
“Absolutely intentional. My feeling was that the music should gently put it’s arm around the audience, in the same way that when you receive or observe a small act of kindness it can be incredibly moving. If we had earned the audiences emotional investment, we would allow them to express those emotions via that musical embrace, sometimes. I’m so glad you think we achieved that.”
I recently had a family bereavement and was listening to your music from The Inheritance as the plane took off from JFK, looking out at the sunset over Manhattan and thinking of the person we’d just lost and had a good cathartic cry. I was really grateful to have your music with me to listen to on that trip. How do you feel about your work being taken out of context in that way and taking on a life of its own outside the piece of work you write it for?
“I’m so sorry for your loss, but I’m grateful that the music could provide some small comfort. I’m very happy of course that the music can stand alone and be taken out of context, although I think many contexts have a shared fundamental emotional core: loss, love, heartbreak, heart stopping beauty. So it’s not surprising that music, the most ephemeral but emotional form, can resonate at times where other art forms can’t. It is less literally specific, more poetic than poetry, and of course there are countless examples of music providing the soundtrack to situations, real or staged, when their original purpose was something else entirely.”
I know you use your own voice on some of your music, did you do that with The Inheritance at all?
“No, I didn’t this time. I definitely did on Skylight for Stephen, so maybe I subconsciously avoided that.”
It’s largely piano led, can you talk us through your choice of instruments and the technical process of how it all came together?
“The Inheritance is scored for piano, strings, and subtle electronic manipulation of those sounds, some guitar, gentle percussion and sound design elements. The piano was our friend, as Stephen put it. It seemed to just sit nicely behind the sound of the actors’ voices. I’m a pianist, so it’s an extension of me anyway, and although I don’t often feature it as front-and-centre as I do here, it felt right. It has an intimacy when played sparsely and rich emotional quality when playing fuller chordal music. The whole score developed out of a single chord that I picked out when I started writing. It’s a chord which only works on the piano.”
The Inheritance is now in its third theatrical home, having opened at the Young Vic and transferred to the West End before arriving on Broadway last year. Have there been any changes to your music or the way it’s been used since the play first opened?
“Rewrites in the script have meant a couple of new cues, and some of the lengths of cues have changed as the play settled into it’s rhythm. Nothing major though. I did notice on Broadway that a piece that Matthew particularly liked crops up more than once now.”
How does creating music for a stage play compare to composing for film or television, does the music generally serve a different purpose?
“Sometimes there are practical reasons for music to happen in theatre productions that screen stories don’t have to worry about like scene changes, quick costume changes, intervals, loud noises that need covering, all sorts that you hope the audience are oblivious to. The trick is to own those situations and make a feature of the music, telling it’s own version of the story. I love underscoring live theatre dialogue, something that is commonplace on screen, but not so much on stage. It has to be so subtle, but it can be devastating. I write a lot of scores for theatre shows that have live music, so the question of acoustic balance is very important; you can’t just turn the music down on the dubbing stage as you would on a film.”
I interviewed Cater Burwell while he was putting the finishing touches to the first Twilight score and he told me that Bella’s Lullaby was actually something he’d composed years earlier as a gift for his wife. Have you used music you’ve already created in your work in a similar way to this?
“No, I tend to keep on making new stuff. Sometimes my music is used in shows it wasn’t written for, which I’m totally cool with. I’m talking drama though, not a Conservative party broadcast, or advertising something dodgy!”
Who are your musical influences or the composers you admire? What do you particularly admire about them?
“I mainly listen to classical music and contemporary jazz for pleasure, but find that everything I hear teaches me something. I adore improvising pianists like Keith Jarrett and Django Bates, the oud playing and particularly the vocals of Dhaffer Youssef, the counterpoint and voicings of Willian Byrd, Henry Purcell and John Dowland from the 16th and 17th centuries.”
In a Desert Island Discs scenario if you had to chose just one piece of instrumental music and one track with vocals, what would you go for and why?
“The song would be Oh, What a Beautiful Morning sung by Ray Charles with the Count Basie band, from Ray Sings, Basie swings. And the instrumental would be Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D.”
What are you working on at the moment and how has that process been?
“The Visit at the National Theatre, a wonderful production for which I’ve written a Jazz score for five piece live band. A long process, with a lot of score, hugely satisfying for me as the music plays a big role in the show, and the wonderful musicians have a real blow. I’m about to fly off to Tokyo to do The Royal Hunt of The Sun with choreographer Will Tuckett. I’ve done several shows with the incredible Will, so it’s going to be a lot of fun and a fabulous spectacle!”
For more on Paul Englishby visit his official website. Tickets for The Inheritance are available by calling 212-239-6200 or by visiting Telecharge.com. The Inheritance is performed five times a week – on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 1pm and Thursdays and Fridays at 7pm. A second chapter that continues the story, The Inheritance Part 2, is performed three times a week – on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 7pm. Audience members do not need to purchase tickets to both plays. For more information please visit www.TheInheritancePlay.com.