by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
James Sugg returns to Arena Stage after his sound designs of Good People, The Chosen and Long Day’s Journey into Night, as well as performing and designing around DC, including Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Folger Theatre and Studio Theatre. James is a 15-year member of Pig Iron Theater Company, with whom he has created 20 original pieces. He is also the composer of the music theater pieces A Murder, A Mystery and A Marriage (book by Aaron Posner); The Sea; and Cherry Bomb (book by Jen Childs). Read James' full bio here—and check out the video at the end of this interview for a sneak peek of the music in Mother Courage and Her Children.
How would you describe your musical style?
I’m really a slave to content. Even as a singer and an actor, I ask myself what is my real singing voice? What is the music I really like? What is the music I would write if I wasn’t writing it for a play? I see my work as a slave to the piece of theater. I’m a chameleon.
What was your inspiration for the music of Mother Courage?
Director Molly Smith and I started with the band Gogol Bordello. They’re a gypsy punk band which has come to notoriety in the last four or five years. They take the musical modes, the musical scales, the instrumentation—accordion, violin—and add a punk drummer, electric guitar and bass. They take the rhythm section of punk and put it behind the front of gypsy.
From there we listened to a lot of Eastern European music, including traditional folk singing. Goran Bregovic, the composer for Emir Kusturica’s films Underground and Black Cat, White Cat— he uses a lot of Serbian brass band sound—he was a big influence on me. We also incorporated some American Folk styles. As I began to write the song for the Chaplain—“The God Who Was a Man”— I felt it needed to have an earthiness and sincerity. So, I began to look at Johnny Cash and American Folk singers, and drew from that sound. There’s no instrument being played in the show that couldn’t be carried on your back. So, in that sense it’s very Folk, it’s very of the people.
Mother Courage has been a very collaborative experience. How has the music developed during the process?
That comes in several phases. There’s definitely a moment in writing a musical when you have to go in a room by yourself and see what you come up with. That happened in September when I took two weeks to go away and come up with some of these songs, some of these themes, to build a variety within the tapestry of the music—finding the most up-tempo moment, the most rowdy moment, the most sincere moment—to begin to see what the whole journey of the piece is. In a musical it’s very important that you rise and fall in the right spots.
Along with that phase was a lot of conversation with Molly. I sent her demos and sometimes the songs were spot-on, and then there were times when she would steer me in a different direction. For example, I originally wrote Yvette’s song “Each Night in May” as a very heartfelt folk song but the actress, Meg Gillentine, is a great Fosse dancer and Molly wanted her to be able to strut her stuff during the song. So I took on this tango feel and gave her something which she can really move to.
The second phase was Movement Director David Leong, who had three workshops to try out ideas he and Molly had been speaking about. A lot of his work began to inform where I needed to go; especially in transition music. The transitions are rather pronounced in this piece. David choreographed all of those, and I knew there had to be very specific music that should go with that.
The piece is in constant motion. There are seventeen actors in the show. All of them, at some point, play an instrument, all of them sing, all of them act and move, so, it’s been a real whirlwind of activity and of multitasking around the play.
The third phase, of course, has been getting into the rehearsal room—hearing Kathleen Turner sing for the first time, seeing how well James Konicek can play the trombone, can Rick Foucheux hold down the tuba, do we have a bass line? The answer to all of those, I will happily say, is yes—they can play the trombone, the tuba, the guitar, the upright bass, the accordion, the musical saw, the viola. It’s all happening in spades.
What three words best describe the music of mother courage?
Raise-the-roof. (That counts as one word, right?) Homespun. Military.
What’s on your iPod?
I’m a big fan of Tom Waits (also a big influence on this show). I’m listening to music for my wedding, in July, to figure out what songs my fiancé and I have listened to together, what songs we want to dance to, what songs express our love —including a Tom Waits song “Picture in a Frame,” which is one of my favorite songs, and maybe what we’ll play for our first dance.