Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Creating music “too deep for words”—Arthur Miller, Alex North, and Death of a Salesman

In 1975, when George C. Scott directed and starred in the Circle in the Square revival of Death of a Salesman, the producers replaced the music used in Elia Kazan’s original 1949 production with new incidental music by Craig Wasson. Similarly, in 1999 when the Roundabout Theatre revived the play with Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman, the producers opted for new music by Richard Woodbury. The current Broadway revival, directed by Mike Nichols with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, restores the original music by Alex North, as did the 1984 revival featuring Dustin Hoffman. Just how intrinsic is North’s music to the play?

Arthur Miller described his first meeting with North in an interview with Sanya Shoilevska Henderson for her book Alex North, Film Composer:
It was [Elia] Kazan’s idea to put Alex on the Death of a Salesman project. It was a brilliant idea. I met Alex in Kazan’s house in Manhattan where we were preparing the production of the play. At our first meeting he played some music of Death of a Salesman on the piano. I was very touched by that. It was very moving music. It was the first time in my experience that I heard of a symphonic approach to the theater. In other words, each of the main characters had a theme as they would in a symphony. And those themes were combined, they were fugal, all kinds of forms created around those themes. I don’t think we changed very much of what he first initiated. 
In the first line of his stage directions to Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller calls for a single instrument:
A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises. . . . From the right, Willy Loman, the Salesman, enters, carrying two large sample cases. The flute plays on. He hears but is not aware of it. 
North added more than a flute but he had constraints. The original theater, the Morosco, had no orchestra pit. The duration of the music and the number of musicians he could use were determined by the regulations of the Musicians Union: no more than twenty-four minutes and no more than four musicians. North chose an ensemble of alto flute, cello, trumpet, and clarinet with occasional change to alto clarinet. He scored twenty-two-and-a-half minutes of music. The music was not taped; it was performed live at every performance, which required North to create a new sound stage technique, which Henderson describes:
[North] required the musicians to perform from an off-stage room of the theater, a so-called “padded cell,” located way up at the top of the stage. Since they could not see the scene, the musicians had a red light flash in the room, which the assistant stage manager would turn on when they were supposed to start playing, and turn off when they had to stop. The music was transmitted through a microphone to the speakers in the theater with the volume controlled behind the stage. The musicians unfortunately never had a chance to see the play. 
Critics immediately registered the impact North’s music had on the play. Death of a Salesman opened in New York on February 10, 1949. In the March 27 issue of The New York Times Howard Taubman hailed North’s “brilliant, imaginative score” in an article devoted almost entirely to the play’s music:
Willy’s death takes place off stage and here Mr. North’s music builds up a shattering climax that takes the place of words and action. The requiem music gives a pathos to the scene that is perhaps too deep for words. Here music serves a function for which there is probably no substitute in all the theatre arts. 
Miller acknowledged his debt to North in his interview with Henderson: “You can’t separate the music from the play, or the play from the music.” Asked by Charles Isherwood why he chose to restore the original music, director Nichols responded: “For one it’s a very good score, and oddly it’s the one thing I do remember from seeing the play [when he was seventeen].”

North collaborated with Kazan again in creating the score for the film version of Death of a Salesman (1951) and the path-breaking, jazzy score for the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Both received Oscar nominations for Best Music. He would work with Miller again in composing the music for the John Huston film The Misfits (1961). However, North may be best known today as the composer of the ballad “Unchained Melody,” a song from the film Unchained (1955) before it became a global sensation as the theme song to the hit film Ghost (1990).

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944–1961 (includes Death of a Salesman and the screenplay for The Misfits)

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