A Different Stage: Student Composers in Theater

When talking about the music scene at Tufts, one usually thinks of the Battle of the Bands, or the faculty-led music department. Creativity is typically thought of to be in the form of songwriting (for independent singer-songwriters) or composing (for a department-sponsored classical performance). Other genres exist, however, and a handful of students that partake in both groups also compose for the stage – the theater stage, that is. Although there is no official relationship between the music and drama departments, there are ideas in the works for connecting the two. This semester, two theater productions in particular contributed to this movement and showcased students’ original musical work.

One was the drama department show this semester, titled Or,. The play was written by Liz Duffy Adams, an American playwright, but this performance at Tufts featured original music by Grace Oberhofer, a junior. Or, premiered in 2009 but takes place in Restoration England. It follows a fictitious day in the life of Aphra Behn, a real playwright, and her encounters with lovers, past and present. Oberhofer based her composition style — and ultimately the decision to have the pit live on stage – on the play’s time period.

“I ended up doing a lot of research, before I even started to write anything, of the different musical styles that I was going to comment on and the historical context of the show,” she recalled in an interview. “I composed it while I was abroad, and I got a lot of ideas for themes while I was abroad.”

Due to her research and hard work, the music fit well within the context of the play. Though sparse at times, the underscoring highlighted key dramatic moments, helping the audience to understand the performance on an emotional level.

Or, was not Oberhofer’s first experience composing for theater. She worked with Sheriden Thomas, a senior lecturer in the drama department and director of Or, last year in the play Measure for Measure. In this project, Oberhofer wrote a choral piece to Shakespearian text in the play. For Or, however, she decided to take it a step further.

“I decided that it would be fun to take on a role of really composing a lot of music, and creating the fluidity of the show with sound design,” said Oberhofer.

Oberhofer is a music major, and thus is accustomed to composing on a regular basis. However, composing classical and theater music is not her only passion. She also writes songs that she would define as part of the singer-songwriter genre. Her music has been compared to the likes of Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. It largely features her voice, with a few (rare) instrumental additions here and there, and complex harmonies. Her themes tend to center around emotional experiences – either her own, or those of friends.

Although she regularly composes for class, she had a hard time distinguishing between music written for a grade and music written for fun.

“To be honest, most of the composition that I’ve done for class has been for fun,” she laughed.

Her creative process is the same for both, though for class, her composition involves substantially more research. This does not intimidate her – she takes on all class projects voluntarily to push her own limits.  She is not lacking performance opportunities, either. As a singer, mime, music major, and actress, she has plenty of venues to showcase her work. However, she has not always taken advantage of all the resources that Tufts has to offer.

“I feel like performing my own material is something that I really haven’t tapped into, and it’s something that I’m very interested in getting involved with more before I leave Tufts,” she said. “I know there’s a big music community, not only here but also in Somerville, in Boston on like a larger scale and I’d love to perform my own stuff.”

One group in the Tufts drama community that provides such opportunities is Bare Bodkin, a theater company at Tufts that produces student-written work. On April 21, they performed Ronald, a musical written by Jennifer Seidel. The musical features nine songs written by Seidel and her friend Zoe, with no transitions between them. It feels more like a concert of theater music rather than a cohesive play, but that is part of its purpose. Though there is not much of a story, each song represents a window into a different person’s life. Over the course of the musical, the song genre and topics range from a rap song about one night stands to a Broadway-style solo about a woman’s first airplane ride.

“We just [wrote the songs] for fun because we had too much free time I guess,” Seidel recalled. “One day I was playing them for one of my friends who’s very involved in the theater community here, and she said I should turn them into a musical and propose it to Bare Bodkin, and so I did. Because again, I had too much free time, or rather I wanted to procrastinate all the other stuff that I had to do.”

The songs are short, but impressive. Even though Seidel and Zoe wrote the majority of them in high school, they also feature complex harmonies, sometimes in five parts.  The topics are simple but clever, including an extremely tidy young man who, despite his ticks, finds love; and a romance between an American woman and a Canadian man that begins with her finding his phone in a supermarket.

Despite Seidel’s intention to frame the musical as “life is life, these are some characters that I saw,” (in her own words), the feedback received at the Bare Bodkin performance largely focused on finding continuity between the songs. Some members of the audience proposed rearranging the songs to create a more coherent story, with one suggesting to put the songs in “lifetime order” – beginning for example, with one person’s childhood and ending with another’s old age. Another recommended having an outside observer – who would be named Ronald – commenting on what he saw passing through life. Others suggested a reunion of all the characters at the end.  Someone proposed taking advantage of reusing actors to make lifetimes meet in different situations, a la Cloud Atlas.

“It’s the same feedback that I got before we started this, when I was talking to my friends or I was talking to Jem [the project coordinator] and Drew [the director] and everything, they were like ‘well why don’t we try and have some more continuity, some sort of plot,’” Seidel said. “Then we would sit there and we would rearrange things and then ultimately we ended up right back where we were, which was what we then presented.”

Though it was not the first musical that Bare Bodkin produced, it was one of very few. Bare Bodkin typically produces plays, which is why the club members were excited to showcase Seidel’s work even before it had a title. The title, by the way, is a tribute to Zoe. The two also wrote a children’s book together that featured an owl and a giraffe, representing Zoe and Seidel, respectively. The giraffe’s name was Quincy and the owl’s name was Ronald. Since Zoe could not make the premiere, Seidel named the musical after her animal counterpart.

Until this semester, Seidel said she did not participate much in the theater music community at Tufts. However, her positive experiences with both Ronald and helping with Charlie Brown have led her to want to continue.

“It’s a really fun community, and they’re very welcoming and very friendly,” she commented.  “It’s just … a lot of fun to work on these projects and then have them to show off to everybody.”

One response to “A Different Stage: Student Composers in Theater

  1. Pingback: San Fermin Interview, September 2014 | Melisma Magazine·

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