It takes a village to create the lush sound of a Broadway musical. From orchestrators to dance arrangers, there's an army of people working to make the composer's vision a reality. Today, Haley Bennett explains her work as part of the music team on the upcoming Broadway revival of Once on this Island.
Remember those weird logic puzzles in which you had to attribute a bunch of random facts to different people? You know – Mary, John, Al, and Fran are friends who go to a party. Fran likes cookies but hates the color blue. Mary is older than Al and only eats cake on Sundays. John and Mary are not related. Which dessert did Fran bring to the party?
This is a little bit how my work right now feels. As part of the music team for the upcoming Broadway revival of Once On This Island, I’m currently working on editing the extraordinary new vocal charts created by Annmarie Milazzo (Next to Normal, Spring Awakening). Annmarie is an incredible artist who works entirely by ear to develop unique vocal harmonies and textures that become the sonic language of a show. My job is to take what she has created throughout our earlier workshops and adjust it to fit the parameters of the upcoming production.
In Annmarie’s complex vocal writing, each actor has his or her own vocal line that often overlaps with others but never matches exactly. With a sixteen person cast, Annmarie has crafted beautiful, sixteen-part textures that we’ve continued to develop in the room; they always grow and change when layered onto individual voices.
With our exciting recent casting announcements comes a new and challenging bout of work on my end. For example, it’s thrilling to feature a strong female in the role of Papa Ge, but what does that mean for the vocal track? While the actress playing the role has an incredibly versatile range, the role was initially written as a bass track, so my job is to take her solo material and integrate it into a new track that will be maintainable range-wise for an eight-show week. And then, to cover some of that other bass material, another track morphs, and so on, until we’ve created a new mosaic of parts that honors the sound and intention of the original assignments but through slightly different means.
An additional challenge occurs when we think about the logistics of storytelling on its feet in the theater. There may be moments when actors, especially the four portraying the gods, need to be offstage changing or can’t sing in a certain number for storytelling purposes. Then it becomes about taking these beautiful arrangements, initially mapped out across sixteen individual voices, and adjusting them so that no part is uncovered and we still manifest the whole original sound, but now with only twelve voices.
Just like beginning to solve a logic puzzle, starting to edit a new song can be daunting, as there are so many moving pieces. But viewing it as a creative puzzle waiting to be solved makes it a very fun challenge. How do you take this beautiful sound and recreate and honor it with different pieces moving in different ways?
Mostly, I'm excited to get back in the room and hear all of the actors try on their new vocal lines for size - hear it all come together and grow from the unique qualities each voice brings to the table.Of course, it’s all going to continue to change and evolve, and this music will never look or sound exactly the same again as it will on the first day of rehearsal. I’m excited to take you on this incredible journey with us!
Learn more about Broadway music teams in our episode on Music Departments here.