The task was to write a 45-to-60 minute show that got kids jazzed about orchestral music. So what we did was we did the shows, we did a tour of Northern California -- we went to Chico, Redding, and some other cities on 3 consecutive days, and each time we got more than a thousand people there in big auditoriums, and the crowds went nuts. So we were like, “Wow, this is awesome, we’re on to something here” and we decided then that we wanted to make a recording. The first version of that is we did an orchestral version of “Banana” on a Doctor Noise album -- that was fun, we got Nathan Gunn. And then it became this bigger ambition, which Kyle and I had talked about from the beginning, which was to do an album of it, a two-act musical. But the shows will still be the 45-to-60 minute version we originally did on the tour.
It was funny -- one of my favorite pop/rock guys is Elvis Costello, and just by chance every night on that tour, we played the day after the nights Elvis Costello played in the same theatre. So his buses would go out the same night we would come in, and that made us feel good. I never met, though, the bus was always literally pulling out as we were pulling in.
When you’re writing an original orchestral work for kids, how hard is it not to hear Peter and the Wolf constantly?
Oh, it’s easy, I don’t care about Peter and the Wolf. I mean, I like Peter and the Wolf, but although we marketed it as a modern kid’s Peter and the Wolf, or a modern version of Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, I’ve always looked at every Doctor Noise album as an audio Pixar movie for kids. I really wanted to write a musical that introduced kids to the orchestra and knew from very early on that we didn’t want to do a 15- or -20-minute thing like Peter and the Wolf. There is a Peter and the Wolf-ish section in the second act when all the instruments are introduced in a dramatic narrative sort of way, but didn’t really think about Peter and the Wolf at all, to be honest.
That’s interesting because if you were to ask someone, is there a classical music piece for kids, they might say Peter and the Wolf and if they had more than 5 [classical] CDs in their collection they might say, there’s that other, by that English guy, but beyond Peter and the Wolf and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, there’s really not much there. But what struck me was -- you used the phrase “musical theatre,” and deliberately, because there are songs in there that are clearly not in the classical tradition, they’re much poppier, or musical theatre-y. So that was one of your goals from the beginning, to be not just classical, but more inclusive, genre-wise?
Totally. If you look at the Doctor Noize characters, one the ways I set it up so it’d be fun, was that characters have totally different voices -- we have opera voices, we have bad country voices, we have pop voices, so the idea is that every time one of these characters steps forward and sings, they’re learning about this other style of music, but they’re still bringing their own thing to it. It’s not like we’re going to have the Lenny, Phineas, and Sydney the Beak all of a sudden singing opera. That wasn’t the goal from the beginning -- it was, wouldn’t it be interesting if these three tenors characters and Lenny and Sydney the Beak, who’s a rapper, they all educated each other about their styles of music and they all learned to love all those styles. That was always the premise behind the storylines of all the Doctor Noize albums.
When you were coming up with the storyline, did you start with the premise that you wanted to tell a story and then weave some basic classical music knowledge in there --?
So that was the way you worked rather than setting up a structure of “this is how the orchestra operates and I’m going to wrap a story around that.
Totally. I learned from 3 places -- being a parent, being a high school music teacher, and watching Pixar movies -- that the way to get anybody engaged in anything is to tell a story with characters. So that is always the first thing. When I was a high school music teacher, I had this music history class. It’s possibly the thing I’m most proud of in life because it made me realize I could do this in other arenas. I had this classical music history class elective in high school and it became so popular it was made a required freshman course. The way that happened was I learned that if you played Beethoven’s Fifth for people and talked about this amazing 4-note motif, they’re going to get bored out of their minds. But if you tell a story around it, and you talk about Beethoven and how he went deaf, and why they wrote their stuff, you can get anybody, even a 9-year-old, you want to hear it and they’ll say, “Yes!” All of that is about building drama into music, which is very easy when you’re talking about classical music because all these musicians are freaks. There are crazy stories about all of them.
One of my favorite moments as Doctor Noize was when we made a trumpet player cry. In the North State Symphony, in the show, we had this bad guy, Mama, who hated classical music and was trying to get us to stop the show. We get to this part of the show where we say, “But then we’d have to play Beethoven’s Fifth. Do you want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth?,” and a thousand kids scream, “Yeaaaaahhhh!” And the trumpet player started crying. I realized we don’t have to play to a bunch of blue-haired old ladies driving Lexuses. We can introduce this music to kids if we share with them the excitement of the music instead of just getting up and playing the music for them.
The music is very easy to write once you have the story, because stories create emotional situation and drama and things that for a composer are just fun to write. I’ve always found for me that once you have a structure, the music writes itself.
You’ve written a lot of the music, so how do you go about getting the cast of characters -- not the characters of the musical, but all these artists -- how do you get their participation in the project?
Well, one of them was my wife, so that’s easy. [Laughs] There’s a recording studio in the basement, so that’s easy. Two of them are my children, so that’s easy. Then it gets more complicated. The whole Doctor Noize cast came back, so that was kind of easy. Everybody knows that every year or two, we’re going to get together to make another recording.
The two big snags we had were Isabel Leonard and John McVeigh. Isabel and Nathan were friends and had performed in many things together and Nathan [Gunn] had been on the Doctor Noize CDs since the first CD, so it’s nice to have a Grammy-winning opera singer on your first CD when no one’s ever heard of you. That allows you to get people like Isabel Leonard interested, which was so amazing -- it’s unreal what she does. When I called Isabel, I thought I would be selling her and pitching her on the recording, but after a minute, I realized she was in, that Nathan had already told her about it and said this would be really fun, and she was in. So that was ridiculously easy.
There’s a track on the CD called “Mama’s Lament,” and it’s Isabel’s big introductory torch song, and that is all one take. There’s no overdubs, and there’s no pitch-shifting. And for a composer who’s used to working in a studio and working with all us pop singers who meticulously perfect every note, it was ridiculous to listen to her do that. If you listen to that piece, it goes from musical theatre to pop to whatever, it’s all over the place, it’s hysterical, and she’s acting. And in one take. So working with her was just amazing. That was one moment I will never forget in my recording career, just watching her record that.
John McVeigh is a guy who’s perform with the Metropolitan Opera, and done some musical theatre, and we got him through... I can’t remember, Kyle Pickett’s wife knew somebody who knew him, I don’t remember. But I just contacted him and he flew out here to Colorado and recorded his part. He got the role of the shark coming out and being himself over time. He got it for all sorts of musical and personal reasons and he was just hysterical to work with. He was the last person we recorded and he made it way better.
Other people, like Sidney the Beak -- the woman who plays Sidney the Beak is the only non-professional of the major cast members and she was my high school student when I was a high school teacher in the Bay Area. She was a basketball star and one of the only kids who could rap at the school, and she recorded some rap songs for me and I hired her early on and she kept coming back. Now she’s 30 years old and I think she’s [with] the global health initiative for the Clinton Foundation or something very impressive like that, but we still get her every 2 years to record for us. It’s the only thing she does musically, as far as I know [laughs].
I was going to say it was impressive, certainly listening to Isabel Leonard, but listening to the whole album in terms of the number of styles, vocal performances -- it’s a very impressive collection.
I appreciate that, and we have people who are not super-famous who are amazing on this album, like Ben Evans plays both Bottomus and Lenny, who, if you’ve heard them, have totally different voices. He was a guy I went to college with, and while everybody who [was there] knows Ben Evans, he’s not a household name. He was amazing.