The Filming and Scoring of The Greatest Story Ever Told
Hardcover: 314 pages
Publisher: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. (August 1, 1992)
Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.5 x 0.9 inches
Alfred Newman’s score for The Greatest Story Ever Told is regarded by many film music commentators as his finest achievement. Unfortunately, due to the interference and dictates of producer/director George Stevens and his production associates, the music ended up as a pale shadow of Newman’s original conception.
As choral director, Ken Darby assisted Alfred Newman with many of his film scores. In his posthumously published book HOLLYWOOD HOLYLAND he gives the full details of his and Newman’s travails in working on The Greatest Story Ever Told. Darby visited the set while the picture was still shooting in order to rehearse the choral scenes and the first part of the book details his reminiscences whilst on the set, involving his discussions with Stevens and other production staff about the music. The second part details the tribulations and frustrations of composing the actual music. As such, this book is unique in that no single film score has previously been examined in such detail. Written from the witty and philosophical viewpoint of Darby, it is a fascinating and revealing look at the difficulties encountered by film composers and the power wielded by movie producers.Newman’s previous dealings with George Stevens on Gunga Din and The Diary of Anne Frank had already put him on his guard and he had expressed doubt about how things would work out – even before starting work on the film. The first trial for the composer was being asked by Stevens to piano audition the score. This was obviously insulting for someone of Newman’s reputation, who had composed the music or acted as musical director for nearly 200 films and was the recipient of nine Oscars. Nevertheless, Stevens pronounced that he was pleased with the proposed themes and Newman and Darby set to work.
Having composed choral music for the end of Act 1 and Act 2 of the film, Stevens abrupt1y informed Newman that he had decided to replace it with the Halleluiah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. He also decided to use Newman’s own music from the crucifixion scene in The Robe for the scene portraying the resurrection of Lazarus – complete with thunderclaps from a clear blue sky. A later substitution was the use of Verdi’s Requiem for the Via Dolorosa sequence. Newman decided to have nothing to do with these substitutions and left the recording of them to Darby.Other music changes were constantly being made and Newman found himself composing music for edited scenes which Stevens would re-edit and which would then require different music. Ultimately 23 days were spent in actual studio recording time with the orchestra. A tremendous amount of time considering the average film score is recorded over a period of a few days.
When the film opened there was much criticism, unfairly laid on Newman, for the vulgar use of Handel’s Messiah. If George Stevens had been prepared to listen to the advice of Newman, then he might have seen the sheer bad taste of the scene himself. Well, it didn’t take long for George Stevens to get the message, due to the critical mauling which the film and that sequence received. Within days he was at work re-editing and restoring part of Newman’s own choral composition for the scene. However, the damage had been done.
Newman tried to have his name removed from the film. As he said, “My own music, good or bad, was interpolated, deleted and misplaced. Music designed for sensitive scenes was removed and inserted into other sequences where it actually damaged the dramatic content. Some of it is my music but it is no longer my score.” However, Newman could do nothing about it. He was tied to the usual and onerous Hollywood “for-hire clause”, which basically said that the product of the composer belonged to the employer as though the latter had created and/or composed it.
Darby also reveals that he supervised the separate recording for the sound track LP and that the philosophical liner notes, which gave no credit or mention of Newman (!), were written by Stevens. Fortunately Darby was able to preserve a two-track tape of the entire score as originally recorded, which he then presented to Newman. It is a sad, sorry tale, but one which Darby tells without rancour and with considerable humour.