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Michael Bruce: Why every composer gains by writing music for plays

Michael Bruce wrote the music for The Recruiting Officer at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2012. Photo: Johan Persson
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Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bernstein, Grieg, Bizet, Schubert, Purcell and Britten all, at some point in their careers, wrote what can be termed ‘incidental music’ for plays. A lot less publicly heralded than work for the concert hall or film and much more subtly executed than most West End or Broadway musicals, the score for a play can lift a story, the words of a playwright and a production to another level. But for composers themselves, writing for plays also provides a distinct creative challenge to develop their discipline, skill and inventiveness.

Some might scoff at the notion of the score’s importance when sat next to the words of the playwright, but the truth is (and I am not just saying this as a composer) – a score can do as much for a production as set design, costume, lighting, direction and a good performance. If any one of these things is below par then the whole show can suffer. Each play has its own requirements regarding music – some need none, but for many it’s an essential element of the production. Music written for the theatre is part of the language through which the story is told.

Writing scores for plays is not the most glamorous way to earn a living through music, but it is one of the more interesting and challenging and, I would argue, vital for continual artistic development. When a composer signs on to write the music for a play, they must abandon their ingrained habitual choices, compose within a new framework, stick to a strict timeframe and fulfil a specific function in a continually evolving process. In creating a score for a play, a composer has to respond to the needs of a piece of drama and the requests of a director. They are forced to consider writing music afresh and cannot churn out the same old stuff they’ve done before.

One of the great challenges and assets about writing play scores is that you may be required to write in any style of music or blend stylistic references to create something new. No composer for plays can sit on their laurels. In my time as a composer I have turned my hand (with varying degrees of success) to a wide range of musical styles including 18th-century English folk music, French operetta, bluegrass, electronica, 1980s pop, ragtime, gypsy jazz and music hall.

Composers for theatre are forced to consider dramatic narrative; how to pick up an audience at the end of one scene and deliver them to the next, how to thematically sculpt an evening to deliver the right amount of emotional support for the story, how to create music that responds to, or emanates from, a character – entirely separate from their location or historical context, how to support a piece of action, how to heighten a scene with underscore and when to leave a moment alone. They also frequently have to write songs and may be required to work on lyrics. Budget constraints often necessitate them also acting as arranger, orchestrator, fixer, conductor, musician and musical director. Composers need to be adaptable not just in their creative output but in the methods they use to make that output a reality.

A composer for plays doesn’t have time to toil for months on crafting the perfect orchestration

The essential collaboration with other artists and members of the creative team forces a composer to consider why and how choices are made. I have spent many a happy week in a rehearsal room with directors, actors and designers observing them and working with them to help stage a scene or frame a particular moment. Working on a score for a play forces composers to write quickly, be adaptable, work to a brief and be ready to throw cues out in a technical rehearsal when they realise they don’t work. They then have to be able to figure out why it’s wrong and how to fix it. The composer for plays doesn’t have time to toil for months on crafting the perfect orchestration or waste time feeling uninspired and creatively blocked. I would suggest a good remedy for any artist going through a creative block is to collaborate with others on a piece of theatre and be forced to deliver on schedule.

Working on plays has made my pop songwriting better, my musical theatre writing stronger, it has taught me how to interrogate a writer’s choices in a script and how to interpret them musically and it has honed my skills in arranging and orchestration – working out how to harness small instrumental forces for great effect without the luxury of large ensembles.

Once a play begins its rehearsal process, the turnaround time is usually pretty swift. This means a composer will usually work on the score for a play for anything from several days to a month or so, but it doesn’t normally require a full-time commitment throughout. This means it’s not unrealistic for most composers to slot a play into their schedule every now and then.

Alongside the incredible list of composers from history who have written for plays, there are many contemporary examples of high-profile songwriters and composers who have lent their talents to the theatre. These include Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, Cerys Matthews, and Oscar-winning composers Dario Marianelli and Stephen Warbeck. As well as being a tremendous learning ground for emerging composers, writing for the stage can play an important role for all composers throughout their careers.

Theatre composers have to learn (or remember) to leave their ego at the door. The director’s say is final and while a healthy working relationship will allow you to fight for those cues you believe work the best, you often have to rewrite cues at the behest of the director under extreme time pressures. Working with lighting designers helps your understanding of how to frame a moment or segue in and out of scenes. Collaborations with designers and stage management will help you to understand both the aesthetic and technical needs of a scene change, why you may have to add extra bars of music, how things on stage need to move choreographically and how best to incorporate that knowledge into your score. Collaborations with sound designers will help you to create seamless, imagined worlds out of sound. You’ll have to embrace the latest technology, work with actors, singers, musicians, recording studio engineers and actor-musicians.

Early in my career, I got a break as the first composer-in-residence at the Bush Theatre and have been attached to the Donmar Warehouse as composer-in-residence since 2012. Being in a creative environment on a regular basis is a dream for a composer who, by the nature of their work, must spend long stretches of time alone. The Bush’s willingness to try having a composer-in-residence showed how it can work, and I am delighted that a wider scheme is supported by the Mackintosh Foundation resulting in many placements for emerging composers in theatres around the country. Being allowed to witness the workings of a producing theatre and being a part of its creative output is a tremendous opportunity for any composer – particularly those in the early part of their career.

Working in the theatre encourages composers to take risks, to both trust and challenge their instincts, to discover new ways of working and new artistic relationships. All artists need to keep developing and be stimulated to remain at their creative peak. As composers, writing music for plays provides that opportunity as well as endless and diverse challenges, and you get to watch some damn good theatre at the same time.

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