A Musical Quilt: An Interview with Composer Daryl Waters

Musical Supervisor Daryl Waters can be hard to find in and around the rehearsal hall for A Civil War Christmas. He might be at his table, musing over his script; at a music stand, furiously penciling notes on manila pages of blank musical staffs; with headphones and laptop, listening to examples of Christmas carols from director Tina Landau; or at the keyboard, playing through a new scene with the cast.

But his work can always be heard during rehearsal - and, soon, during performances - since Landau’s production of A Civil War Christmas sets Paula Vogel’s script to Waters’ continuous musical scoring from beginning to end. Here, Waters shares some thoughts with assistant director Katie McGerr about his process, his music, and his inspiration as a composer.

KM: Let's start at the beginning: what exactly does "musical supervision" entail?

DW: My job is part creative and part administrative. Creatively, I'm responsible for the vocal arrangements (vocal harmonies and interpretation of the songs) and the incidental music arrangements (the music under dialogue and between scenes that helps to support the dramatic moment). On some shows, those jobs are often handled by two separate people.

On the administrative side, I'm responsible for the musical "nuts and bolts": making sure there are copies of the music for the cast and the music director and interacting with other departments to make sure they have the info they need from the music department. For instance, because the music director and his instrument are visible for the entire show, we have to work with the props department to come up with a way to "dress" the keyboard so it looks more "19th centuryish."

Andrew Resnick, our fantastic music director, has the main responsibilities of rehearsing the cast and playing/conducting the show, but in the rehearsal process, there's often overlap between our jobs.

KM: How much work did you do in advance, and how much is happening on your feet in rehearsal?

DW: Most of my work is being created during the rehearsal process. It would have been difficult to do a lot of work in advance. A lot of the piece is underscored, so there's no accurate way to know what that music should be till it's seen with actors.

And I wanted to customize the vocal arrangements to play to the strengths of the cast, but I wouldn't know how they would sound as a group until the first week of rehearsal. The time crunch creates a lot more pressure, but it's a great cast and I'm really happy with the results.

KM: So much of this piece - and Tina's process in creating it - has been about storytelling. How does the music, vocal and instrumental, serve that function?

DW: I've loved working with Tina and Paula, because their pictures, words and intents are so clear that the music has virtually written itself. There are certain characters who have their own motif, like Abraham Lincoln. The motifs have been used in the underscored moments to add another emotional layer to a scene; sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

The vocal arrangements also have to reflect the moment; sometimes simply by the choice to add harmony or just have everyone sing the melody.

KM: Talk a little about the different kinds of music in the piece - the Civil War songs, the Christmas music, and the spirituals - and what it's like to weave them together. And how much does your own contemporary sensibility infuse the sound?

DW: I think of the songs in this show as a musical quilt; snippets that when woven together create an aesthetically pleasing, one-of-a-kind piece.

The decision was made from the beginning to look at the music from a contemporary point of view, which interested me far more than re-creating period music. The key was to do it in a way that was not disrespectful to the material. Hopefully you'll think I succeeded...

KM: In her introduction to A Civil War Christmas, Paula Vogel says that her inspiration for the play comes, in part, from "subliminally processing music": "As a schoolgirl in Maryland," she writes, "I was taught the lyrics to...'Maryland, My Maryland,' sung to the tune of 'O Tannenbaum.'" Do you have any musical "processing" memories of your own, either regarding this music or any other?

DW: In a sense, my own musical style is an amalgam of processed memories, whether it's listening to the Percy Faith Orchestra on my grandmother's radio, playing in my own R&B band in high school, or playing/arranging for people like Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis, Jr. I would not be who I am without those memories and many more.

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