When Elizabeth Taylor breaks a phonograph record over Richard Burton's head, as she does every night in "Private Lives," she is breaking a record of Stanley Silverman's music.
Silverman mentioned the fact at breakfast a few days ago, not without a touch of pride, in the middle of a rambling conversation about golems, William Shakespeare, American foreign policy, a bar mitzvah card signed by the Boston Red Sox and the style of political controversy in the days of Susan B. Anthony. Silverman has a lot of irons in a lot of fires.
You won't see her, but Stanley Silverman has managed to get his wife a small part in "Private Lives." He wrote the music for this production and his wife, known professionally as Martha Caplin, is a classical violinist. So "Private Lives" has come to town with incidental music for violin and jazz quartet.
Also coming to town--in fact, opening tonight at the Wolf Trap Barns--is another of Silverman's current projects: the opera "The Mother of Us All," with words by Gertrude Stein and music by Virgil Thomson, which Silverman revised, simplified, tightened and directed in a new production that won near-hysterical approval from New York critics. It is his debut as a stage director and one of the most improbable hits of the year. "It's about love and politics," he explains modestly. "That's an unbeatable combination."
The world will have to wait until next July and August to see two of his other current projects--musical theater pieces about the golem and about the Latin dance craze of the 1950s--but another musical, "Up From Paradise," written with Arthur Miller, is about to have its off-Broadway opening. Before that, though, Silverman faces another major production: a bar mitzvah two weeks from now for his 13-year-old son Benjy, for which he has managed to get a bar mitzvah card signed by the entire roster of the Boston Red Sox--procured, with the aid of a few complimentary tickets, while he was in Boston last spring for the opening of "Private Lives."
When he is not busy with these pastimes, Silverman spends part of his time as resident composer for the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario. So far, he has set about 15 of Shakespeare's plays to music, and has made a cantata out of his music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He is also working on a concerto for brass quintet and orchestra.
It's hard to know where to begin a conversation with Silverman, but "Private Lives" is probably as good a place as any. "They seem to run those productions like a mom and pop store," he says. "I was asked to write the incidental music to 'Private Lives' because I wrote it for 'The Little Foxes,' and I guess they liked what I did. I got the job for 'The Little Foxes' because I had written incidental music for another production of that show, one directed by Mike Nichols. The director of 'Private Lives,' Milton Katselas, called to tell me he would be interested in my writing the music. He also said that although Noel Coward wrote the great song in that show, 'Some Day I'll Find You,' he wanted to throw it out. That song is the 'Mack the Knife' of the show, and I said I though it should be kept in. I couldn't imagine the show without it. I hear rumors that he also approached Marvin Hamlisch and Stephen Sondheim; he wanted a new song, a hit single, to be the hook for the show. To make a long story short, the song remained and he left--but there's no connection, I'm sure."
What Silverman did for the show, besides orchestrating Coward's song, was to produce a half-dozen instrumental pieces in a 1930s jazz style to be played by a band in the background. "The show takes place in a hotel room where they're constantly referring to that cheap music coming from downstairs," he explains. "Then, in the second act, the music is on a phonograph record, so we had to make a record that would really work--until she breaks it over his head."
In the show's first run, in Boston's Shubert Theater, the band--the Warren Vache' Jr. Jazz Quartet--played live in a box adjoining the stage. In New York and Washington, the music is on tape.
"They thought the audience would be rubbernecking all evening," explains Silverman, "and also, they could sell that box. The band gets paid for each performance whether they are live or on tape, but they were very upset about not appearing. They did everything, including having the president of the union call and say, 'Look, I have musicians here who want to play every night.'
"In Boston, they used to go out to a club and jam every night after the show, the way musicians did in the '30s, and in New York they were going to do it at Broadway Joe's. One night in Boston, Martha sat in with them, and the customers found it very strange--a concert violinist sitting in with this jazz band. She was very properly dressed and had her music stand, reading the music while the guys were playing from memory."
For the Obie-winning production of "The Mother of Us All," Silverman compressed and clarified the show, reducing the number of characters from 26 to 10 and focusing the action.
"I insisted that composer Virgil Thomson should be very much part of this production," Silverman says. "You know, for years, publicly and privately, he has been very vocal about what he liked and didn't like in productions of his work. So, he told me what he liked and what he didn't--mostly, he liked it--and we held auditions in his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel and he was very active in choosing the people; then he came weekly to rehearsals. When he didn't like something, he would yell it out very loud and clear in the middle of the rehearsal, so we very sweetly asked him to write notes.
"Where he was 'specially valuable was in reminding us of the real class system that existed at the beginning of the women's suffrage movement. It was a kind of upper-class revolt, with white gloves on and extreme good manners--something we don't see today. At all times, thanks to Virgil's influence, these things are done with great deference and charm."
Silverman's musical "The Champagne Hour," which will premiere next August at the Lenox Arts Center in Massachusetts, takes its name from the Latin dance craze of the 1950s--specifically from the dance competitions where a bottle of champagne was the prize. "It will give me a chance to compose in some rhythms that I love and that haven't been fashionable for a long time," Silverman says.
"I've noticed that our popular dances and card games reflect our foreign policy," he says. "In the '40s and '50s, until Castro came along, it was rumbas, mambos, cha-chas--all the Cuban dances--and canasta. Then it all stopped with Castro."
His other major work in progress, commissioned by Joseph Papp, will have its premiere next July in Central Park. It is about the golem. The what? The golem was "a sort of proto-Frankenstein monster," Silverman explains, "built to defend the ghetto against vandals and brigands in medieval Prague. He was designed as a defensive player, but they can't stop him; he goes on the offense and devours Prague. I can see the movie already--in 3-D."