Berklee College of Music alum Michael Teoli has written, arranged or scored (or all three) more than a few out-of-the-box original rock musicals and plays for Los Angeles theater. (Of course, there’s that other fun fact of him being an intern on the music team of Lord of the Rings…). And he’s ready for more. Because music isn’t just for musicals.
How did you start writing musical theater?
I’m primarily a film composer. But I’ve always loved theater as well. Back in high school, before I knew how anything worked, my kind of larger-than-life dream was to tour with a rock orchestra, you know? Exactly like what Hans Zimmer is doing right now.
I came out here doing film, and I got an opportunity to do my first musical, Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera with Elizabeth Searle who wrote the libretto. Since then, I’ve done CarnEvil, The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd., Exorcistic (arranged), Doomsday Cabaret (arranged) and The Sirens of Titan which just ran at Sacred Fools among others. I also write music, direct and arrange for other composers who are songwriters, but who don’t necessarily have the musical background to put it on paper for performance.
The new thing I’ve been doing more and more is creating music for plays that aren’t musicals, but have their own score.
Is that a burgeoning trend in L.A. Theater at the moment?
I think so. But I’m still surprised at the rarity of it. Because you’re getting something that’s custom-made for you, and it makes your product instantly better. People starting a play are thinking they need a set designer and costume designer. But not a lot of people are thinking about getting an original composer.
When you go to a concert, you want to hear the songs you know. I think when you sit down to see a new play, if you’ve already heard the songs for instance advertised in the trailer a few times, subconsciously you’re gonna connect with the play more. You’ve heard this music that’s married to it.
What I personally got with Sirens of Titans was how the music underlined the play as opposed to leading the audience. I was allowed to just be there with what was going on.
Totally. I mean it just goes back to having something custom. It’s going to have a certain emotion.
Music always has to have a function if it’s too exist. And I think part of my job especially as a film composer is to figure out as much where not to put music as it is where to put it. I always talk about that with directors. You don’t have to tell me in musical terms “Oh, I want this instrument” or “I want this style.” Just, how should it function and what emotion should it be carrying, to allow the audience or the viewers to feel a certain way.
Themes are really important. In Sirens I had five main, reoccurring themes and one-offs too like the gospel music. And just like what we were talking about in hearing the tunes, if you have themes that reoccur, subconsciously as the audience, you’re going to grow more attached to those themes. It’s going to pull you in that much more. You feel the tragedy of what’s happening a lot more than if you’ve heard it for the first time.
Any push-back? Music can be disruptive and some might argue there’s a purity with silence in a pause or in a scene.
Not really. I think certain directors are more understanding of how a score functions than others. It’s collaborative. So much of it is about the director and the relationship with the director.
In film, I never read scripts or hardly ever see rough cuts. And if it’s in my contract, I don’t start working until the picture is locked, because everything is to the frame.
In theater you don’t have that at all. Venues have to just go on the script. I ask directors to make a streamline list of where they want music to be and anything they can tell me about it from this line to this line. How long it should be approximately. Then I’m given more freedom to cycle down the list. If I’m inspired, I can go outside those perimeters.
But it’s really good when you have someone who is hands-on about listening and getting notes back to you fast, and giving their trust. I’ve done shows where people aren’t as necessarily sure, or the communication is not there, or there’s so much going on, they might not know the intent behind something.
I don’t know if vision is the word. Goal. I want to bring true rock music to the stage. I just feel like rock in America is dying in the charts and on radio. So the natural place for it to go, due to its dramatic quality, I think is theater.
Is there a distinction between writing a score for musical theater as opposed to other orchestral music?
There are less boundaries in theater. For a musical, one of my favorite things is mixing and fusing styles. If you’re doing a rock musical, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s heavy all the time. I’m just as influenced by Depeche Mode and Daft Punk as I am something heavier.
I think the limitations that you do have are tied to your instrumentation which affects the approach. With the stuff that I do, it’s usually a five, maybe a four piece band. I use my two guitarists, whenever possible. I think of them as my voices.
My writing is the opposite of most musical theater composers, where most are pianists first, having the guitarists do a lot of comping. Whereas in my stuff, all the leads are in the guitars and the pianos are comping.
What are some of the films you’ve scored?
At this point, I’ve worked on over sixty-five films including shorts and features. One of my favorite scores that I’ve ever done, and released an album for is called, Neshima. I got to use a lot of different orchestral sounds. It was very East meets West. A lot of sitar and table and tons of wind instruments. I also did a film last year called, The Drama Club that I’m really proud of. It’s more of a chill score. Criminal Behavior directed by Warren Pemberton is another action film.
I’m really into horror movies personally. But I think more epic fantasy, where the music could really step out and become kind of a focus. For theater, ultimately I would just love to be able to work with more live musicians.
The thing I love about theater is you’re working with live players. Whereas, film, a lot of it is sequenced, or me playing in my home studio, or sending things off to Switzerland.
I’m not an actor at all. But in Exorcistic I was kind of a band director. I didn’t have lines, but I could just literally be myself and react to what was happening. That was really fun. One thing I really loved about Exorcistic was that the band was part of the context as a character. I always make it so the band is unapologetically there. I never try to hide them. I think the more they can stand out, the more they can really be part of that action and even be dramatic themselves. Like the guitars with their movements and with guitar solos and stuff. I try to get the spotlight on them as much as possible.