Interview with David Shire

By • June 2, 2015

The all-singing, all-dancing practitioners of the Great White Way have often shared talent from across the aisle with composers for the big and small screens. It’s a creative pollination that’s not only seen numerous musicals adapted for the cinema, but also artists best known among the general public for their film work setting sights on the stage – a repertoire that includes the “legit” efforts of such seemingly cinema-specific musicians as John Barry (“Billy,” “Lolita My Love”) and Elmer Bernstein (“How Now Dow Jones” and ”Merlin”). But it will doubtlessly surprise score aficionados that David Shire, the composer of 140 projects ranging from the gloriously soaring “Hindenburg” to the darkly conspiratorial “All the President’s Men” and the jazzy suspense of “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three,” is even more at home on stage.

Certainly Shire’s Oscar-winning and nominated tunes for “Norma Rae” and “The Promise” are a giveaway to the vaunted composer’s talents at putting tunes to other’s words. It’s an especially vaunted teaming of music and lyrics when it comes to Shire’s decades-long collaboration with lyricist and musical book-writer Richard Maltby Jr. With both men the sons of musicians, Maltby and Shire’s numerous musical theater collaborations have included the Tony-nominated “Baby,” “Big” and the off-Broadway presentations of “Starting Here, Starting Now,” “Closer Than Ever,” “Urban Blight” and “The Sap of Life.” But if there’s one particular credit of Maltby’s that comes into play in his newest stage venture with Shire, then it’s being the lyricist of “Miss Saigon,” an updating of Puccini’s classic opera “Madame Butterfly” that detailed the doomed relationship between a sailor and Japanese woman – as translated by Maltby into the fatal relationship between an American marine and Vietnamese prostitute.

Shire (L) and Maltby (R)

Yet that being sung, Shire and Maltby’s “Waterfall” is a brighter, and perhaps more optimistic affair between the Thai student Noppon (Bie Sukrit) and Katherine (Emily Padgett), the young American wife of an older Thai diplomat. Spanning the politically fertile period of Thai-Japanese relations between 1932 and 1945, “Waterfall” poetically details a love affair that’s as impossible for the couple to resist as it is for them to make it continue, especially in the oncoming face of Japanese militarism. Drawing on the tradition of starstruck love between Caucasian and Asian that’s proved particularly fertile in the musical and movie arenas from “The King and I” to “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” Shire and Maltby’s music and lyrics are just as beautifully full of influences, spanning history and a forbidden relationship with a show steeped in the ancient rhythms of Thailand and Japan as much as it is Broadway showtunes, as given a new 20th century energy by the American jazz craze that’s sweeping one nation bound for war.

Though the Thai-originated “Waterfall” might be a very different platform for Shire’s talents than what film music fans might only know him for, his tell-tale talent for melody, emotion and nostalgia comes through loud and clear in the company of Maltby and Stephen Sondheim orchestrator Jonathan Tunick (“Pacific Overtures’). It’s a message of undeniable romance and moral duty voiced through achingly emotional, and sometimes playful song – as given vibrantly colorful and costumed form. It’s an of-the-moment, on-stage world that Shire is now content to live in, one that he invites us to experience as “Waterfall” hopefully heads from its stint at The Pasadena Playhouse to Seattle, and then the NYC Shangri-La to which all musicals aspire.

Were Broadway-style musicals as interesting to you as being a film composer?

I started out with theater as my roots long before I wrote for movies and television. Theater is my first love actually. I love doing movies but I’ve given them up to go back to New York to do musicals. People in New York can’t understand why I waste my time doing movies, and people out in Los Angeles have often wondered how I could give up on my movies and go back and work in the theater. I’ve had this bifurcated career and it’s been frustrating in a way, because I’d like to do everything in both areas but have really divided my career in half. But I basically think of myself as a theater composer.

What were you inspirations in developing your Broadway musical style?

My dad was a society bandleader in Buffalo and a pop music piano teacher. In those days pop music was theater music. So instead of nursery rhymes, my very first musically formative years were spent listening to a lot of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein and Rogers and Hart. I met Richard Maltsby Jr. at Yale 50 odd years ago and we wrote two musicals there that were fully produced by the Yale undergraduate dramatic association. Then we came to New York and started writing musicals. I had done a few TV shows in New York, but basically my film career started when I came out to LA with a musical called “Loved Match,” which played at the Ahmanson Theater. We were trying out “Love Match” as a really big Broadway musical, but it closed there because it wasn’t good enough and I was a little bit frustrated with Broadway at that point. We were hired to improve another project, and ended up re-writing the whole thing. But when that closed, Billy Goldenberg, an expatriate friend of mine from the Broadway world (Marvin Hamlisch was a theater wannabe with us), took me to Universal, where he was very successful doing TV shows like “Ironside.” Billy introduced me to Stanley Wilson, who ran the music department. I had a few tapes of the live television work I’d done in New York. And before I knew it, I was scoring “The Virginian” at Universal. I decided to stay in LA because that was very exciting to me, as I was a little down on Broadway and my progress there with Richard. That began many years of me being bicoastal, with me keeping one foot in both the Broadway, and Hollywood worlds.

How did you and Richard come on board “Waterfall?”

Shire (L) and Maltby (R)

The show was an adaptation of an Asian novel along the lines of “Bridges of Madison Country.” It had been turned into an Asian movie, and then an Asian stage musical. Richard and I were originally hired to translate it and upgrade it, especially as Richard had written the lyrics for “Miss Saigon.” So he was a kind of a Broadway Asian expert as such. Then he told the show’s producers that they really needed to redo the whole thing, which we ended up doing.

Did you add the American character of Katherine into it during that process?

Yes. That was part of the re-writing of the book. The story had to be reconceived because the Asian one was kind of a sweet, small Asian story, but it had no real Broadway punch that would appeal to an American audience. Richard and I first approached “Waterfall” as kind of a job, one that seemed like an interesting idea, and gave us a nice advance. It wasn’t a subject we would have picked. But as we worked on it, we became more passionately involved with it. Now “Waterfall” is something we feel is very much our own.

What do you think makes a good music and lyricist team like you and Richard?

There are different kinds of musicals, but the kind we like to write are the serious integrated, Stephen Sondheim / Leonard Bernstein type of musicals. You start with a story and you tell a story as well as you can through music and lyrics.

Is “Waterfall” your first musical dive into dealing with Asian melody?

It is for the stage. But actually, the first television job I had was scoring a drama for the live dramatic anthology series “CBS Playhouse.” This particular episode was called “The Final War of Olly Winter,” which was about a black soldier in Vietnam. I knew nothing about Asian music, but I had gotten this gig. So I did as much research as fast I could. I ended up with a three-piece orchestra that consisted of a samisen, a harp and Asian percussion. I’m sure out of the 200 film and TV scores I’ve written that some of them had Asian color, especially since I’ve done a lot of ethnic scores. But whatever the culture, you need to research them and try to filter them through your own musical style. If I wrote a strict Southeast Asian score for “Waterfall,” you’d be bored to tears. This is in the tradition of “The King and I,” which is a combination of Asian flavors. And because “Waterfall” was cross-cultural, I could really blend 1930’s jazz with Japanese music and Thai music. I used the Thai pentatonic scale a lot to reflect that Thai characters. The Japanese pentatonic scale is a different one. It’s a little bit more sinister, so that worked out very well because their song “I Like Americans” is based on a kind of Japanese pentatonic scale.

What do you think the fascination it is with cross-cultural ethnic romances?

(L-R) Bie Sukrit and Emily Padgett. Photo: Joan Marcus

They just make for good drama, which is about tension, and the resolution of it. It just seems a staple for all kinds of drama, whether it is plays, musicals. There’s “The World of Suzie Wong,” “Flower Drum Song” and “Miss Saigon.” My favorite musical “West Side Story” also has one. So it really goes back to the dynamic of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is about different family cultures, even though the lovers there are both from the Caucasian world. So you’ve got this discord in these stories that has t to end, whether it’s with tragedy, or happiness. “Waterfall” is subtler because it’s really about an almost impossible first love, which isn’t resolved, though our hero learns that he can become a capable person. But then, you never forget your first love, because it teaches you that you can love, and what love means. So I think that within that “cross-cultural” genre, “Waterfall” is an interesting story, especially because of its historic and political background. We heightened that a great deal, because the love story by itself would be kind of boring. “Waterfall” deals with a fascinating period in Thai history where Thailand’s becoming a democracy while Japan is getting besotted with American cultural, all as that country is turning fascist The character of Noppon fascinated me because he’s attracted to American culture like a magnet. And in return, Katherine teaches him to return to loving his own culture.

Jazz also plays a big psart in “Waterfall,” as it has in such wonderful, period-specific film sores you’ve done like “Farewell My Lovely” and even “The Hindenburg.”

My roots, as well as the roots of our orchestra Jonathan Tunick, are in jazz. The first bands we had were high school and college jazz groups. Jazz and theater music were the big thing. George Gershwin is a prime example of what we aspired to be. He was a theater composer. Yet his work was jazz-based. It’s great fun to be able to do jazz, and I love scores that allow me to work with and integrate different styles of music. “Waterfall” was particularly fun in that way because it was oriental music versus jazz and pop music. Interestingly enough, a lot of Gershwin’s songs are pentatonic (sings I Got Rhythm). That’s a pure pentatonic scale. You can go through many of his songs, and at least the head motifs are pentatonic which shows you how the blues scale has some relation to oriental scales.

There’s now a consciousness of being politically correct. Was it important to you in that respect to not be stereotypical, while being authentic to these character’s Asian backgrounds?

Shire: Absolutely. The Asian community has been very excited about this show. The Pasadena Playhouse which tries to be an outreach to the community was looking for a project that would engage the Asian community. So when Richard and I were looking for a tryout place, The Pasadena Playhouse was like a win-win because they were looking for a project like this and we were looking for a classy venue with a sophisticated audience to try the show out. We’re going to Seattle next, which is like three or four times the size of this theater. But because the original producer and director of the show in Thailand is now our co-director and co-producer, Tak Viravan, kept us honest at every turn. If we did things that weren’t authentic or too fake he would pull us back on the track. So we’ve had very good reactions from the entire audience. However, I think the Japanese may not like the show.

What have been the challenges of working with a Thai co-director?

It was fascinating. We had to get used to each other’s creative styles and cultures, which was a cross-cultural experience in itself. Tak loves American musicals, but on the other hand, the Asian esthetic is a lot less paced in terms of American drama. It’s a little more relaxed. So Tak had to meet us on certain terms, and we had to meet his. This project has been in development for three or four years. There was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance at first. But we always had great respect for Tak, and he had great respect for us. “Waterfall” is a co-production with him and a Broadway producer, and it’s been a fascinating experience. It’s something that came out of the blue. And as I said, it was going to be a gig that turned into a real passion project. Richard and I are as proud of this score as anything we’ve written, and this phase of the production will go on for a year now, as we’re just starting. It’s hardly finished by any means. We’ll do re-writing on “Waterfall” between now and Seattle. We will learn more in Seattle and do more re-writing between Seattle and Broadway. The production process on musicals these days is such that there’s so much at stake and the bar is set so high commercially that you just work endlessly to perfect it with both the technical aspect and performance aspect.

Intrada Records has put out your wonderful scores for “Old Boyfriends” and “Return To Oz.” What’s interesting “Boyfriends’” star Talia Shire was your wife at the time. Did that make scoring it all the more personal to you?

Not really as you become a surgeon when you work on any score. Even more interesting, I scored Talia’s romantic comedy “Bed and Breakfast” years later when she was my ex-wife, and I was married to Didi Conn. Did came to Ireland with me, and was at the recording session with Talia, watching her doing love scenes on the screen as I was writing the love music for them! Talia’s new husband Jack Schwartzman was the producer. It was all really kind of chummy. Just because Talia and I got divorced didn’t mean that we lost our artistic respect for each other.

“Old Boyfriends” has a beautifully aching viola theme that really grabs you.

The last musical I wrote used that melody, and made a theater song out of it. The show was called “Taking Flight.” It was about the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.

“Return to Oz” might have done badly at the box office in 1985, but it’s become a real cult favorite now, especially for its score. Was there any trepidation back then on doing such a radically different and darker vision of Oz then what audiences’ conditioned to “Under the Rainbow” were used to?

The first “Wizard of Oz” was not in the style of creator L. Frank Baum’s original series of books, which were very dark. It was the director Walter Murch’s idea to do “Return to Oz” in the visual style of the second and third books. So I inherited that. I think one of the reasons the movie failed was that people were looking for a song like “Over The Rainbow” in it. I would have traded my whole 100 minutes of music for those 32 bars!

Yet your music for “Return To Oz” is actually pretty bright and epic in a turn-of-the-century Americana way. It’s like what would have happened if Scott Joplin or John Philip Sousa had scored “Star Wars!”

The score for “Return to Oz” was set in that Americana style that I loved. Walter and I had this idea that the score would be a reflection of the music that Dorothy would have heard in that turn-of-the-century period, both classical and popular, kind of Scott-Joplin-esque. It was very exciting to me. The score was also inspired by a little-known work by Charles Ives called “Music For Theater (Old Songs Deranged: Music for Theater Orchestra). I don’t even know if it’s in print, and I don’t even have my copy anymore, but it had little pieces written for a 14 or 15-piece theater orchestra, with one version of everything. It’s just wonderful music, with Charles Ives played with a small orchestra. I also drew on that heavily for a movie called “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” which was another flop. Some of my best music has been attached to movies that haven’t made it.

What do you want fans of your film music work to get out of “Waterfall?”

People say what’s the difference between film music and stage musicals. As for me, I say that one is background music, where you’re hired to help a director fulfill their vision. You’re like an aural set designer or a costume designer, where trying to see what the director is trying to do. On a musical, you usually pick the story, and you’re writing foreground music. The story is basically being told, dramatically through the music. But yet, there are similarities between the stage and screen styles. I think what has made my work distinctive in movies – however distinctive it is – is because my training was in the theater, and I was attuned, right from the beginning, to writing music to illustrate characters and their dramatic situations. That gave me a melodic style that has certainly served me in the theater, and the theater’s melodic style has helped my film scores. People tell me that it’s the melodic aspect of them that is most attractive, especially since film scores have become largely textural now. That even goes for the theater now, where The Tony Awards, often gives the “Best Musical” award to one show, and the “Best Score” award to another. It used to be that whatever show had the best music was also the best musical. Bit now you can have a mediocre score and still have a Tony Award-winning musical. With “Waterfall,” we’re bucking the Disneyfication of Broadway.

Buy tickets to see “Waterfall” at the Pasadena Playhouse HERE through June 28th.

Buy David Shire’s scores on Intrada Records for “Old Boyfriends” HERE and “Return to Oz” HERE

Visit David Shire’s website HERE

Special thanks to Peter Hackman for transcribing this interview

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