While we are used to thinking of a musical score as being integral to the atmosphere of a film, it is a concept that is less common in theatre – unless the show is a musical, obviously. However, music can add immeasurably to the impact of a play, particularly if it is composed specifically for the piece.
Music is going to be a key feature of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men which opens at the theatre tonight. Composer Heather Christian, who is also playing the part of Curley’s wife in the play, was specially commissioned to create the score following her involvement as a leading creative in the National Theatre Shed’s award-winning Mission Drift, which explored American capitalism through storytelling, movement and music that fused Southern blues with Las Vegas glitz.
Born in Mississippi but now resident in New York and an acclaimed singer, composer and devised theatre performer in the city’s avant-garde arts community, Christian is the daughter of a blues musician and a go-go dancer and is steeped in the music of her country. She is primarily a musician, performing regularly all over the world with her ensemble Heather Christian and the Arbornauts and describes her music as avant-Americana.
Her approach to composing the score for Of Mice and Men was to first go back to the novel. “I re-read it and compared it to the play and looked at how Steinbeck had adapted the story for the stage,” she says. “I found that I quite prefer the novel – it’s sometimes hard to separate your opinion from your work – but then I asked myself why I am more attracted to the novel than the play.”
In the transition from page to stage, Christian felt that the lyrical aspects of the novel’s narrative were lost a little. “In the play there is an absence of poetic descriptions of the environment and poetic language,” she says. So she set about filling that absence with a soundscape. “What I tried to do was to paint the landscape with music. I wanted to get across the sense of loneliness and also the vastness of the American landscape – it’s something a lot of Americans take for granted – and the fact that loneliness within that landscape is all the more acute.” Christian’s score incorporates a range of American music but is stamped with her distinctive avant-Americana style. “It sounds quite traditional but the way that I like to use music is not particularly traditional,” she explains. “I don’t do classic musical theatre type of writing. There are so many potential ways that music can exist in the world – just as there are different ways that we use music as people.”
She has found working with the other actor-musicians on the production very rewarding. “They are actors who were cast but who are serendipitously perfect musicians for this piece,” she says. “I am thrilled with the musicians I have been given and I have made some friends for life – music has that way of connecting people.”
Christian has also viewed her interpretation of the role of Curley’s wife – who she is not portraying, as is often the case, as a temptress – through the prism of the music. “I have approched the music as an expression of loneliness and landscape and that has to fit with the way I play the character. She is inadvertently flirtatious but more than anything she is just lonely and desperate for company.”