PUBLICITY PHOTOS notwithstanding, it's unlikely that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote every note and phrase of their classic theater music side-by-side at the piano. But at least the photos prove the collaborators had met. The same can't be said of composer Eric Shim and lyricist Jack Cannon, who created two original songs for Arena Stage's "Orpheus Descending" through an unusual long-distance partnership.
The pairing was the brainchild of director Molly Smith. She tapped Shim, an up-and-coming sound designer from New York making his Arena debut, to create the sonic backdrop for Tennessee Williams's tragic romance between Lady (Chandler Vinton), a small-town shopkeeper's wife, and Val (Matt Bogart), a blues-playing drifter. Next, she called on Alaska-based Cannon, one of her long-time collaborators at Juneau's Perseverance Theatre, to write lyrics for Val's songs. Then she stepped out of the way.
Smith is "really good at communicating the goals of the play, but then she leaves the work to her designers and guides it all through the process," Shim observes. Smith's broad vision was to acknowledge the play's mythic references while keeping it firmly rooted in Williams's Americana. In their initial discussions, says Shim, he and Smith agreed that "blues was the right thing, not only because it's very heavily referenced in the play, but there's that kind of 'devil at the crossroads' history in blues. That seemed to be a good starting point, at least for Val's songs."
Shim set to work creating an aural palette based on that discussion and submitted it to Smith. She gave him the go-ahead and Cannon's phone number. "I sent him some blues songs that represented how I imagined things going in the phrasing," Shim says. "It wasn't completely traditional blues; it was a little more winding and free. So he made some lyrics based on those conversations; and, of course, the lyrics guided a little bit the structure of the songs."
Four time zones away, Cannon seems amused by how little back-and-forth there was in the process. "I talked to Molly really very briefly," he recalls. "She told me where she wanted the songs and maybe a sentence or two about what she was thinking." He developed two lyrics around themes of inevitability and missed opportunities, sang them into Smith's voice mail, and only recently heard a CD of the finished product. "I didn't really have a clue what was going on," he says with a chuckle.
Indeed, the songs as performed in the show reflect the input of a third collaborator: Bogart. Says Shim: "It was just kind of important that, with everything we were trying to do, that in his character research he kind of guide how these things sound because, ultimately, they're coming from him." Bogart and Shim trimmed and reworked the songs to fit the actor's sense of Val's journey, ultimately reversing their order within the play. Fortunately, Cannon is one easygoing collaborator. "I don't have a problem with that. I know you have to compromise," he says. "I think they did a nice job with it."