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The music of a musical: Writing Persephone's score

This week's blog post is written by musical director and composer, Carrie Penn, who discusses her role in the production of Persephone.

 

In April 2020, I received an email asking whether I would be interested in composing for a new musical. Writing a musical has always been a dream of mine so I was delighted by the opportunity!


Emma already had a full script and some reference drawings of the ‘look’ she was after, so I soon understood the universe we were aiming to create with Persephone. The rural aesthetic of the show naturally lent itself to a folk influenced score and we agreed that the music should also incorporate elements of rock to reflect the modern setting of this Greek myth.


Writing the score for a full-length musical was a daunting task because of the sheer volume of material, but I was keen to get stuck in. Due to the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic, the other shows I had been writing for were being cancelled one after another, so composing for this show gave me a sense of drive and hope.


To compose a new song, I generally began by listening to and analysing a variety of songs which either matched the style or emotion of the song we were trying to create. Analysing these songs helped me decide what compositional techniques I wanted to use in the piece. Some of the musicals I drew inspiration from include Falsettos, Heathers, RENT and Dear Evan Hansen. I consciously avoided listening to the songs from Hadestown because, as a show with a similar setting, I did not want to be influenced by it.


Once I had an idea of the sound I wanted to create, I would sit down at the piano and improvise melodies and harmonies until I found an idea that I liked. I would then write a rough version of the song and accompaniment, adapting the lyrics to fit with the musical structure I was creating. Once I was happy with the initial version of the music, I would record a demo to send to our director so that we could discuss any changes we might want to make.


After I had written the majority of the songs, the next step was orchestrating the music (writing out the individual band parts). For some pieces, I had already laid out a strong idea of the orchestrations during the composition process, while other times I was expanding my initial piano accompaniment into a full band score. The use of consistent orchestrations throughout a score helps creates a unified “sound world” for a show. For Persephone, we use an eight-piece band, with strings often used to create a folky sound and electric guitars and drums generating a rock-infused style.


An important part of any musical is the use of recurring themes and motifs so, when I first saw Persephone’s song list, I used colour coding to identify which songs should be thematically linked. As well as being used to represent characters, motifs are used to musically connect significant moments in the show. Listeners will carry associations of the theme from when they heard it first, so hearing the theme again in a different context can add an extra depth and enhance the emotional impact of a song or scene.


One of the privileges, and challenges, of working on a new show is watching the script and the story evolve, with script changes at times necessitating extensive musical rewrites. We were lucky to have the chance to workshop our new material with a talented cast of Oxford students (several of whom will be reprising their roles in our staged production). This gave us the opportunity to test out our material and see what worked and what needed adapting. The cast were invaluable in their feedback on the songs and script and hearing their delivery of lines and songs really brought the show to life.


It has been incredibly exciting rehearsing with the cast as we prepare for Persephone’s debut at the Oxford Playhouse, and I look forward to seeing it fully staged!


Persephone will run from 11th - 13th November at the Oxford Playhouse. Tickets are available at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/persephone.