NICO MUHLY—ORIGINAL MUSIC
The music for The Cherry Orchard needs to explode out of the music for the party in Act III, both by practical necessity and to thicken a mystery about the play: Who are these musicians? How do they relate to the servants? How do they comment on — and exist inside and outside — the goings-on in the house? The luxury of live music should, in this case, be in counterpoint to the overall sense of loss that permeates the play. The music is scored for three musicians, mostly onstage: a violinist, who acts as a sort of band leader, a clarinetist, and a percussionist who plays a variety of instruments. While the practical heart of the music is the party, the emotional core comes from a plaintive melody related to Ranevskaya’s dead son, Grisha. This “mourning” music abuts the practical (and perhaps slightly sinister) music that belongs to the house, as well as the somewhat perverted folk idioms that should create a context for the transformation of the estate.
For this production of The Cherry Orchard, I did a lot of visual research of the places and people in pre- Revolution Russia, and of the life and the spaces which the family would have shared and inhabited. Simon Godwin and I then gave ourselves the freedom to depart largely from the naturalistic requirements of domestic life -- walls, doorways -- and instead strove to find an emotional, even fragile and poetic space in which to tell our story. I looked to the natural world for further inspiration -- most importantly to trees. Years of abundance, but also deprivation, are clearly shown in the rings of a tree's life, especially when a particularly majestic one is hewn. Our environment is comprised of wistful and fractured remainders of a more fruitful life and family history constructed upon the hearty, and metaphoric, remainder of a once monumental tree, one that had been in existence for generations. These fragile elements that appear in the space also contribute to our understanding of the shift in location and time of year for each scene and are the fragile ghosts of a more abundant life.
On reading the version of The Cherry Orchard that playwright Stephen Karam has presented to us, I felt that the yellowed quality too often associated with Chekhov translations has been removed, and I was seeing a clear, crisp text that was written not about the past but about the eternal, and, just as it was in 1900, written vitally about our lives today. Director Simon Godwin and I spoke often about how we might create this same sensation for our audience visually, while still honoring the specific and individual humanity that, famously, Chekhov and now Karam have written deeply into each character in the play. And so we stretch and tease history. Our play takes place today, in Russia, but with a definite reference to the past. I began by looking at 2016 fashion with an eye for what I knew of earlier periods, then I looked at fashion and clothing of 1900 and forward which looked appealing and appropriate to today. Once we looked at those visuals together, creating a world to draw from, we realized that each character might pull differently from the past and present on their journey through the play - some hung on to their past dreams, some forcefully injected today onto a sleepy society. We tracked each character’s journey, knowing that the intersections of periods would create meaningful sparks in the story. Always, however, we honor the elemental and individual humanity of Anton Chekhov and his characters. Being asked to help tell the biggest universal social and political themes of the text, while simultaneously describing the intimacy of deeply specific and beloved human characters, is an exhilarating assignment. I have been thrilled to take it on.
The principal objective of my design is to fill the world of The Cherry Orchard with a living light that informs and supports the storytelling, suggests the passage of time and season, and ebbs and flows with the constantly shifting emotional landscape. We experience almost every time of day, and move from spring to summer, fall and winter during the course of the evening. These changes will largely be articulated through light: by subtle (and not so subtle) shifts in angle, color, texture and intensity. Each of The Cherry Orchard’s four acts will have a distinct lighting vocabulary and personality. Act One takes place in the cool pre-dawn early morning light, coupled with the warmth of candle and lamplight. Act Two take place in a nearby field: we experience a sense of natural light transitioning from sunset to twilight, and ending in the early evening. Act Three brings us to a candle-lit drawing room in the midst of a party (highlighted by the exaggerated shadows that you might encounter in a painting by Singer- Sargeant or Degas), and Act Four takes place in the cool and diffuse light of a gray winter. There’s a fantastic marriage of both reality and abstraction in Scott Pask’s scenic design, and I hope to craft the light in a way that reflects this interesting dichotomy. There will be times when the light evokes a sense of poetic realism, and other moments, such as Lopakhin’s announcement that he has bought the orchard, or when Firs finds himself totally alone during the final minutes of the play, that the light will seamlessly shift into a stark and expressionistic landscape. The process of creating the lighting began with a careful study of the script, followed by preparation of a scene-by-scene analysis from a lighting perspective, and a meeting with my collaborators to discuss intention and overall approach. I then developed a list of lighting ideas I would use to bring the world to life, and created technical documents that the electricians referenced when installing the lighting equipment. The actual light “cues” or stage pictures are created during technical rehearsals, and the lighting is shaped and refined during the preview period.
Starting this process, I had (like many) read The Cherry Orchard before. Returning to it now, I was struck by the immediacy of Stephen Karam’s adaptation. The ignorance of impending doom is nothing new. This impulse has driven history over and over. But, it has, right now, current political implications rendering this production extremely relevant. And I must admit, the urge to ignore what is happening around us is tempting, but the need to not do so has tempered my reading of the play. That was on my mind when I started to see the path that Simon, the director, was providing in the setting and composition of the production. The audience gets to thread our way toward the future, being pursued by the past, and hopefully exiting the orchard before the trees start to fall. The music and sound needed to reflect that as well. Nico’s music is balanced between the stately and the frenetic – managing to be both modern and recalling a simpler time for the Ranevsky clan. The most present sound design element of The Cherry Orchard is the baseball bat to the side of the head, the TWACK of the axe starting the literal destruction of the Ranevsky Orchard (and the figurative destruction of a way of life). All during their purposeful ignorance of the impending doom, the pre-echoes of this fateful chop need to be present – if only they had listened. And the phrase that resonates is Lopakhin saying over and over: “I have been telling you…have you not been listening?”
The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage