Music in the Ring: An Interview with Michael McElroy

Music Director Michael McElroy’s work spans from stage to screen as a music director, music arranger, singer, and actor. As rehearsals began on this production of Man in the Ring, he sat down with Literary Associate J. Sebastián Alberdi to talk about the work that went into turning children’s songs into emotionally and theatrically rich moments.

What initially attracted you to Man in the Ring?
One: getting to work with Michael Greif again because I started working with him as an actor. Michael cast me in Rent and Next to Normal on both Broadway and in the national tour. He knew I was also a composer and arranger from my work with my choir Broadway Inspirational Voices, so a few years back Michael asked me to musical direct and do arrangements for Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho at the Signature Theatre. I loved the experience because I had to immerse myself in the music of a Rwandan culture which I was unfamiliar with. Then I had to create the musical landscape and make it theatrical. Two: as a man of color, what I loved about this play is the telling of this extraordinary man’s experience. This is not a story usually told in all its complexity and multi-faceted texture. It explores what defines a man as well as how music plays a role in memory as one gets older.

What was the experience of working with songs that were written into the script?
Michael Cristofer had very specific songs that he wanted to use — the children circle songs of the Caribbean. These song games played by preteens socialized children in how to engage each other in male/female relationships. So, what happens when you’re outside of the circle? Within the context of the play, all the songs are triggers for memories of the main character Emile. As music arranger, my challenge was creating how the songs would unfold musically while supporting the storytelling. You never hear a song from beginning to end in the play, so how does the music support a whole scene? A song may start the scene, and then five pages later they’ll start singing again; how do we get here? Working with both Michael Greif and Michael Cristofer we realized that the instrumentation, which is such a huge part of the Caribbean culture, could support long sections of scenes. Sometimes that’s with banjo or ukulele, or conga and a percussive soundscape.

What was the process of arranging this show’s music?
I immersed myself in the music of the Caribbean. There were two styles that came up a lot that inspired me: Fungi music, which is the traditional music of the British Virgin Islands, and Quelbe music. Then the process became making certain we had the instruments for each particular style. The music of the Caribbean is a combination of the Europeans who colonized and the Africans who were brought to the islands as slaves. The clash of musical sounds manifests in interesting ways with classical flutes, violins, accordions married with ukuleles, banjos, congas, and percussive instruments made by hand. Then when we arrive in New York, it’s 1960s R&B with electric guitars and drums. We have one song that’s a Spanish lullaby so we incorporated acoustic guitar. I really wanted to make sure that the instrumentation supported the musical landscapes of each of these cultures.

The characters we see on stage the most almost never sing. How does that change the way you tell a story musically?
The music either triggers a memory for Emile or is triggered by Emile’s memory. Most often it is then taken over by an ensemble of people, who use the music and lyrics to unlock more of the memory, or further the storytelling. When engaging with older family members, which many of us do, who struggle with memory issues like Emile, whether that’s dementia or Alzheimer’s, researchers have found that music can unlock and awaken those struggling with those diseases. Something about the sound of music touches us as human beings in a way that other things don’t. It unlocks and triggers memories, it’s emotional, it evokes not just a thought but a feeling; and so, within the play, music gives us the opportunity to do those kinds of things for Emile and his story that live outside the traditional acting singing this thoughts.

What would you say to an audience about being open and prepared to hear this music?
This play is an honest, brutal, beautiful, poetic portrayal of a human being that had many facets to him, and it goes back to my first point about it allowing an African American actor to tell a story that was so complex. The music in this play can help you understand culture, environment, a character’s inner thoughts. But in this play, the power of memory and how music truly becomes a soundtrack for our lives is the main focus of how song is utilized. It won’t be the traditional musical where characters sing to reveal their inner thoughts and feelings. So I’d say, just be open to the possibility of music existing in a different way.

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