How did Todd Almond, who composed the music for How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, approach the assignment? “I began by trying to find the point-of-view of the music,” he said this week, as the production was readying its first preview. “Music that is connected to nature, because nature is a very important part of this play.”
More specific references suggested themselves. “When I was reading the text,” Almond said, “I kept hearing Vivaldi and Handel. Not their music specifically but their colors and textures.” A connection to 18th-century music is rooted in Sarah Ruhl’s script. “That’s an essential reference,” Almond pointed out, and I will not, in order to preserve surprise, be more specific.
“In this play,” Almond explained, “it is important that the music not overwhelm the story. The subject matter is human intimacy, and the emotions evoked by the discussions can be both delicate and powerful.” He added: “You don’t want music to overwhelm the language, or the transitions to be too obvious.”
Almond, who grew up in Alliance, Nebraska, and studied music at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, has collaborated with Ruhl previously. They reworked her early Melancholy Play into a chamber musical that was produced two years ago at Trinity Rep, in Providence, Rhode Island, where Ruhl had gone to college (Brown). “It was coincidental that the play is about a woman who becomes so sad she turns into an almond,” said Almond.
Almond also created music for Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, which, like Transcend, was directed by Rebecca Taichman. Lincoln Center Theater audiences are familiar with Almond for his music and lyrics on On the Levee, a 2010 production by LCT3. He said that the piece, with text by Marcus Gardley and conception/direction by Lear deBessonet (a regular Almond collaborator), came about partly because of a seminal American musical. “There are references in Showboat,” Almond said, “to a 1927 flood” – the Greenville, Mississippi flood, which was the worst in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina.
“It was an important moment that few of us knew much about, and it was a pleasure to bring its events to life.”
Almond and deBessonet are working on another musical project rooted in an epochal historical event, but Almond isn’t engaged exclusively by the past. “It’s more,” he said, “that we can often see the present better by looking at the past. The present feels so personal, and it can be hard to create deep resonances when you’re using it to tell stories.”
Almond said his musical education has roots in church choir, which connects, at least nominally, to the title of his recent work “Kansas City Choir Boy,” which he has performed to acclaim across the country with Courtney Love. “It’s a humble little production,” Almond said, “that reflects Courtney’s desire to push herself and the interest we both have in songwriters.” Almond’s own favorite songwriters include Michelle Shocked and Matthew Sweet. The latter’s songs form the core of Girlfriend, a theater piece for which Almond wrote the book.
Many different performance styles distinguish Almond’s career, and he has a wide-ranging eclectic knowledge. But, he said, “my greatest love is for music in theater. Music speaks to us on a supernatural level, and theater is suggestive more than it is real. That’s a powerful combination.”
Almond added: “Because I believe that music speaks to us on a supernatural level, I feel a kinship with Sarah’s work.” Further: “In the new play, she uses mythical elements that create a kind of music in themselves. I want to add to that.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com