An Interview with Alexander Courage by Steven Simak
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/No.35/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Alexander Courage has been doing as he describes for nearly four decades in a career that spans radio, film and television. He came out to California after World War II where he began composing and conducting for CBS Radio. In 1948 he joined MGM and worked for the next twelve years as an arranger and orchestrator with Adolph Deutsch and Andre Previn. His feature film credits include TOKYO AFTER DARK, THE LEFT HANDED GUN and THE SUN AISO RISES. He has arranged the scores for such motion pictures as DR. DOLITTLE, GUYS AND DOLLS, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and HELLO DOLLY.
“Things have changed, though. I think things used to be much more emotional, musically, than they are now because you could only do certain things on the screen. It was very censored in the old days. And because it was so confined emotionally the music took over and played up the emotions of the scene that you couldn’t see. Now you can see everything, so the music has become kind of just background “muzak” for whatever is going on a great deal of the time. The rest of the time it has to give some sort of pulsating back beat that sort of hits the audience in the stomach while they look at something with their eyes and it keeps the excitement from waning.”
Many composers have noted that writing film scores with their inherent limitations and restrictions can be a brutal experience. “The big problem,” Courage explained, “has always been that if the music has too much life on its own, you stop looking at the picture to listen to the music. So you really have to sublimate yourself to what’s happening on the screen. A great deal of the time that means that you just have to stall a lot. You have to put something behind there that doesn’t get in the way. But at the same time something is happening that keeps the beat from dropping dead.”
Another difficulty is that sometimes an almost adversarial relationship between a composer and the motion picture hierarchy develops. Andre Previn, in a 20/20 interview, once commented, “To be blunt about it, you’re working for Idiots half the time.”
“Of all things, music is the most difficult to get across to anyone working for,” Courage responded. “For years, the producers wanted to hear the tune you were going to write for the picture. ‘Play me the tune. What’s going to be your main theme?’ and all that sort of thing. So you’d have to go up there and kind of fake the thing out on the piano and there were people like Tiomkin and Broni Kaper who were absolute aces at that. They could go up there and sell a score in toto before they’d written a note.
“One of the reasons I think Andre said that is because there is an anecdote I can tell you. He wrote a score for a picture called BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK which is one of the best scores for a small picture that’s ever been done In this town. Dore Schary, who was then the head of MGM, was in New York and this was a pet project of his. He phoned Johnny Green’s office (he was head of music for MGM) and asked him if he could have Andre come in and play for him on the piano, from California to New York, the main theme that he was going to use In BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. So Andre, with a sour face, came in and told Mr. Schary that this was going to be it and he played this little military sounding tune that he’d written for the picture and Mr. Schary said, ‘That’s good Andre, put it on a bugle, Courage laughed. “You can go in and you can show the producer or the director or whomever when the sets are going to look like in miniature, but talking about music is very difficult to a non-musician.”
Courage’s work in television includes the background scores for three hundred episodes in fifty-six different series including LOST IN SPACE, THE WALTONS and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. An interesting problem that sometimes came up was how often to use the series theme in the background score. “If you have a theme on a show, and if it’s your theme, then you want to use it as much as possible,” said Courage. “If you’re doing a show where somebody else’s theme is being used, unless you make some kind of deal with the person who wrote the theme (which is what they used to do on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), you don’t get anything while working on anyone else’s theme In the way of future royalties. So you don’t use that theme, if for no other reason than that. Obviously, the producer wants to hear it once In a while, so in that case you do it just to make everybody happy. While I was on THE WALTONS I used Jerry Goldsmith’s theme in the scoring for about the first two years and after that I just didn’t use it. But you can write something else that’s like it. I’ve scored so many musicals where you have to use the songs entirely as the scoring of the picture, part of the contract that the song-writer has, stipulating that whoever scores the pictures will use the tunes exclusively. So I’m used to it and that’s no problem. You can make something into anything.”
Courage is best known for the music he composed for the STAR TREK television series. “I think it’s wonderful to have had it,” he said, commenting on the series which made television history. His involvement with the show came about as a result of his friendship with Wilber Hatch who started him in the business at CBS radio. Hatch became head of music for Desilu when it was purchased by Lucille Bail, and he referred Courage to Gene Roddenberry, STAR Trek’s creator. “He (Roddenberry) said ‘I don’t want any space music’,” Courage recalled. “‘I want adventure music’.” Courage’s music for STAR TREK included the main theme, the two pilots and four of the episodes, after which he felt the need to leave. “The series was not doing well at all,” explained Courage. “It hung by its fingernails for three years. I just told Gene that I had to quit. I was doing a very big picture at Fox which at that point was the biggest musical ever made (DR. DOLITTLE) and I had a joint credit with Lionel Newman. I wanted to get back to Fox because I was doing an enormous amount of television there and STAR TREK was a bust.”
The legacy of the series, however, would last far beyond its cancellation. Among the variety of merchandising that resulted from the series’ eventual popularity, were recordings of Courage’s main theme on theme-oriented and STAR TREK-oriented records. Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics to Courage’s theme which were recorded as a song. “The story about that, to be perfectly honest,” said Courage, “is that I had a rider attached to my contract, I guess It was by Roddenberry’s lawyer, that said that if he ever wrote a lyric to the STAR TREK theme, used or unused, he would collect royalties. So I signed that and completely forgot about it. About two or three years later, I got a phone call from the lawyer saying ‘we’re going to be collecting half your royalties from here on out,’ and that’s exactly what happened.” That’s why, even on some instrumental recordings, the STAR TREK theme is credited jointly to Courage and Roddenberry.
“It’s not bad. It’s a terrible lyric, it’s very corny, it doesn’t scan properly. If it had been a good lyric It would have been marvelous because then we would have gotten a lot of play with vocals and all that. But this way he just did a lyric and then collected on it. It was just a legal technicality.” But the one vocal would not suffice the overwhelming outcry from many to release recordings of the original soundtracks from the series. Courage described calls he would receive from fans all around the country asking about the music tapes for STAR TREK, whose whereabouts had become something of a mystery. In one instance he actually went up to the studio with a group of fans in search of the elusive tapes which many feared may have been destroyed in a much-publicized fire and flood at Paramount. “It was a mystery because I don’t know what they did with it,” Courage recalled. “One of the things was that the series was done for Desilu, and when Paramount bought Desilu I think they just dumped all the music for Desilu up in the music loft somewhere.” Courage credits co-STAR TREK alumni Fred Steiner with finally locating the STAR TREK music that made it possible for suites to be written from episodes and for original soundtrack recordings to be released.
Courage’s music has appeared in one form or another in each of the three theatrical films. During the hectic scoring of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, Jerry Goldsmith contacted Courage to ask him if he would write about 33 seconds of his theme for the film. “I said sure, do you want it up high or low, slow, fast, what? And he said, ‘Oh, slow and low’,” Courage laughed. “I know that James Horner has used it here and there, pieces of the fanfare and all that because he was told to. It’s that simple.”
Aside from these occasional free-lance situations, Courage is no longer active in film scoring. All the same, teaching film composition at USC and writing arrangements for the Boston Pops are only part of Courage’s current activities. He recently returned from England where he orchestrated the score for LEGEND, composed by Jerry Goldsmith (and subsequently dropped from the U.S. release of the picture and replaced by Tangerine Dream music). “Ridley Scott makes beautiful pictures but I guess there wasn’t much of a story, therefore it wasn’t holding together,” Courage said, speaking of the LEGEND scoring debacle. “They were just very unhappy about what they had and were trying to fix it… Jerry wrote an absolutely gorgeous score for that picture.”
As a musician who originally wanted to be a conductor, Alexander Courage has no regrets over the direction his career has taken. “When Andre Previn was very young and we were very close buddies we used to sit on his back porch and talk of conducting all the time and so it’s okay. I’d like to get In front of an orchestra again and play some real serious music, but other than that, that’s about it.” Recalling some of the high points of his career, Courage commented: “Working with Fred Astaire; that was marvelous. Sometimes you do something and it just works like a charm and that’s when the whole thing just comes out absolutely right and everybody gets excited and it’s just marvelous. That’s worth it.”
THE STAR TREK SCORES OF ALEXANDER COURAGE
The Cage (a.k.a.: The Menagerie)
Where no Man has Gone Before
The Man Trap
The Naked Time
The Enterprise Incident