A triple threat tries Broadway

Composer Elliot Goldenthal lives his life in thirds - and that's fine with him.

He's one-third a man of pop culture, writing the music for big-budget movies like "Interview With the Vampire," "Michael Collins," "Alien 3," and "Batman Forever."

But he's also one-third a composer for the concert hall. His "Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio" was performed by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He wrote the music of "Othello" for the San Francisco Ballet. And he wants to finish an opera he's begun based on the 8th-century epic poem "Beowulf."

His theatrical "third" includes collaborations with Julie Taymor, the Tony-award-winning director of the wildly successful Broadway musical "The Lion King."

But he doesn't feel like an odd duck, straddling these seemingly quite different assignments. Celebrated composers like Shostakovich, Copland, and Prokofiev did the same thing, he says, as does Philip Glass today.

"I don't think it's as uncommon as you'd imagine it to be," he says. Whether highbrow or mainstream, the work has common elements. "In essence, Beethoven was also an entertainer; Stravinsky was an entertainer. The hope is that you can be as artistic as you want, but at the same time figure out a way to get audiences to love you."

Right now, he's collaborating again with Ms. Taymor, bringing a musical called "The Green Bird," based on an 18th-century Italian play, to Broadway. It opens next week, and as our talk in his Manhattan apartment ends, he's preparing to head to the theater. He goes there up to three times a day: a rehearsal and two preview shows, matinee and evening. He makes Melding reggae, hip-hop, and Italian folk tunes on Broadway

adjustments at every performance, "as much as the actors and musicians can stand it."

Can "The Green Bird" succeed? He answers slowly. "I feel like we're really doing excellent work, and it all depends on the audiences.... It's a very strange story ... almost Theater of the Absurd - a lot of transformations, a lot of surrealism. If you're open to that sort of thing, it's just what you want."

His score tries to capture the disparate elements of the show. "The approach to the music was to somehow continue a tradition, have a thread that still feels like it's in [18th-century] Italy, still in Venice.... So you have this wonderful collision between an Italianate type of music and jazzy Broadway." For the surrealistic stuff, "it can be anything from hip-hop to reggae.... [But] it'll never sound like real reggae or hip-hop; it'll always be a little twisted."

He agrees that we're in an era on Broadway when the work of sophisticated composers like Stephen Sondheim may have a tough time finding an audience. "I'm afraid audiences have gotten a little bit stupid," he says.

In order to survive economically, "one might have to create work that is a little broader than [Sondheim] has done.... It seems rather bleak out there in terms of what audiences are expecting. In the case of 'The Lion King,' if Julie [Taymor] hadn't chosen Lebo M, the South African composer, the show might have seemed like a theme-park show. But at least with the addition of that great South African composer, you have something that is, on a musical level, legitimately great.

"I'm afraid that ... what the investor expects, and what the audience expects in terms of pat entertainment, seems like a very, very doleful equation. So the idea is that composers such as Sondheim or myself or someone else might have to trick the audience into thinking they're seeing something that's mediocre - when it's really great!"

He laughs at the thought.

Whether it's film, theater, or the concert hall, he says, "You have to respect the medium you work in." He spent more than a year on the score for the recently released film "Titus." It was a "tremendous challenge" to "do something built to last - it's not disposable culture. You really work hard on it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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