“My inclination is to sing to you, but you can’t write that down.”
August Eriksmoen is explaining to me his job as orchestrator, for which the 45-year-old Beacon, N.Y., resident might win a Tony. He is at home, fighting jet lag following a return flight from Seattle, where he has spent 10 days at the 5th Avenue Theatre, introducing a new orchestration for Paint Your Wagon, the 1951 Lerner and Loewe boomtown musical that is—get ready for it—receiving a fresh coat of paint before a June 9 opening. A few days after that, Eriksmoen will walk into Beacon Theatre, where he will possibly be awarded a statuette for his work on the new musical Bright Star. But what exactly is the nature of that work?
“Orchestration is hard to explain,” he says. “The best way I can describe it is to say that every musical starts out as a black-and-white picture and it is my job to color in between the lines of that image.”
In the case of Bright Star, that picture is formed by bluegrass-inspired compositions written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell on banjo and piano (and deeply informed by the duo’s 2013 album Love Has Come for You). Because notes that are plucked and struck have nothing left to do but decay, it is up to Eriksmoen to keep those notes alive, to bring them into the realm of theater. To do so, he writes parts for the orchestra that build on the original song, allowing notes to, say, swell and dance and bring life to the larger themes and characters at play onstage. To make this happen, Eriksmoen worked closely with Martin and Brickell to make sure his work supported their vision. Clearly, it has worked out.
Paint Your Wagon presented a very different challenge, mainly because composer Frederick Loewe died in 1988, around the time that a young Eriksmoen was transitioning from listening to his father’s John Denver albums to Pink Floyd. And so it is partially up to Eriksmoen to, please forgive me, reinvent the wagon wheel. The first step, he says, was to ignore the original orchestration, steeped in the grandiosity common to 1950s Broadway musicals.
“The musical style is very different from the original,” says Eriksmoen. “It wouldn’t have hurt me to listen to, but it wouldn’t have done me any good either.”
Instead he focused on Loewe’s original piano score, coloring it in while receiving direction and feedback from music director Ian Eisendrath. The resulting sound plays on Eriksmoen’s affinity for traditional music—heard in Bright Star, as well as the Eriksmoen-orchestrated Come From Away, which played at Seattle Rep last fall—while taking inspiration from Paint Your Wagon’s 1850s Western setting to create a rootsy, guitar-driven sound, mixed with a bit of Aaron Copland-style Americana.
“The melodies and harmonic structure are so strong that they aren’t beholden to the styles they were given in the original,” he says. “It’s more than bones; it’s DNA. We just dress it up differently.”