After missing out last year on A Noise Within’s (ANW) “A Christmas Carol,” we can once again take in this much-loved show when it returns on stage from Dec. 2 to 23, 2021. Adapted from Charles Dickens’ novella by co-artistic director Geoff Elliott, it has been an annual holiday tradition and is celebrating its ninth year at ANW.
We’re also in for a treat with all-new, original musical compositions created by resident artist Robert Oriol, an accomplished composer and sound designer who was the recipient of the 2019 LADCC (Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle) Special Award for Distinguished Achievement in Theatrical Design. Speaking by phone, Oriol talks about being a lifelong musician, and his work at A Noise Within and on “A Christmas Carol.”
“I’ve been writing songs for rock bands to play on stage since 1975, but it was with the advent of computers in 1984 that I sat down and started writing music for others to perform,” Oriol states.
He goes on to explain, “You could write orchestral music from your studio without having to hire an orchestra at the outset. You could get it to a point where your music comes across, have it approved, and then take it to an orchestra, if necessary. Once computers got up to a certain speed, you could do the bulk of the writing and arranging yourself much quicker than you could have done prior. So that was when I was able to write more complex arrangements strictly for orchestra; it allowed me to write different styles of music to fit the play’s music requirements.
“The very first show I did for ANW was ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ where there was a Dust Bowl Era band on stage and I was the musical director. I didn’t write much music for it because a lot of the music came with the show — they were all acoustic instruments for the period — bass, banjo, and guitar. The next show after that was ‘Pericles’ which was a big orchestral show, and it still stands as one of the biggest shows we’ve ever done as far as sound.”
Oriol became a regular on so many ANW performances that it was only a matter of time before he would become a resident artist. He recalls, “There was one year when I was involved in three plays in one season. I was the composer for ‘Figaro’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ and I was in the band for ‘Three Penny Opera.’ I was setting up the music stands for ‘Three Penny Opera’ when they asked me if I wanted to be a resident artist. Probably because I was working so hard on all three shows and I was always there.”
And for someone who claims he doesn’t really enjoy putting the words to the music, Oriol did exactly that for ANW’s productions of ‘Tartuffe,’ ‘Figaro,’ ‘Julius Caesar,’ ‘Imaginary Invalid,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ ‘Henry V,’ and ‘Argonautika.’
It was only natural, then, that Oriol would also be writing the music and lyrics for ANW’s longest-running show. He says, “I’ve been wanting to do the music for ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we started talking about it in 2016. But the rehearsal phase would usually be when they had just finished a brutal tech for a major Shakespeare play. It just kept getting pushed back for various reasons, like scheduling, and it was simply easier to go with what they already had because the cast literally knew every word of the songs and the choreography — putting new music in would make it a much longer tech process. So, I’ve been chipping away at it since 2016. It’s very rare that I have that kind of time to work with on a play — usually it’s a rush job with only a couple of weeks to do the whole show. This time, I could look at past productions on archival video; I could score it like a film, which is a real luxury.”
Asked about his process, Oriol responds, “After reading the script, I would get ideas from the producer about what era the play is set and what type of music is right for it. But it’s different at ANW with Geoff and Julia because we’ve known each other so long now. I’ll just send them some ideas and they’ll say ‘Yes,’ or maybe ‘A little less of this here,’ and they’ll tell me how long it needs to be. The key at that point is to just stay flexible because you know things are going to change. I just try to do as much of that as I can and then start attending rehearsals as early as possible. The first rehearsal is usually very telling because then I can hear the play, even though I’ve read it a few times — hearing the actors say the words changes everything and gives a real idea of direction. I usually record that and work with it. Then I start writing music where it should be under, try to come up with transitional ideas.”
For “A Christmas Carol,” the music was going to stay in the same vein as the previous production. Oriol relates, “At first I was only going to do a sound design plan. And then we talked about redoing the Fezziwig dance. The instruction was to make the dance the same length so they could use the same choreography, and I did that. The dance has a completely different music but it has the same tempo and length, with the same section structure as the original. But we kind of gave up on the idea of having the same length. Then the songs became completely different, although they’re in the same place in the script, they have the same subject matter, and the same characters are singing them.”
Adds Oriol, “Previously, the song ‘Glorious’ was used three times in the play. Instead of doing that, we have three different songs where ‘Glorious’ was used in the original production. The final song is actually the same melody from the Fezziwig dance. People with an ear for music, to some extent, will recognize that they’ve heard that music before.”
The actors will be working with the musical director on the songs. Oriol says, “That’s just not something I’m good at because I don’t sing well. I do hear the songs in my head and how I want them sung but it’s a matter of how we get there. I know keys will change — two of them already have because Geoff is singing and he wants them to be an A major rather than what they were. And I’ll be expecting more of that and we’ll just take it as they come. I’m really looking forward to hearing the actors actually sing these songs.”
“Tech on the show will take place on the 27th, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Previews start Friday, December 3rd. We get feedback from preview audience in a sense because the presence of 300 people inside the theatre alters the acoustics of the space dramatically. Having them there really helps me determine if something is too loud, or too quiet, or if I need more of this here and more of this there.”
Having spent several years working on “A Christmas Carol,” Oriol is really excited about the audience’s reaction. Many of us who have heard his compositions for past ANW productions already know what to expect. We can only be wowed.