An Interview with Laurence Rosenthal by Roger Feigelson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.7/No.28/1988
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
On May 21, 1988, Intrada Records was host to Laurence Rosenthal. He met with collectors and signed autographs while enthusiastically discussing his film music career. I met with him a couple of hours before to ask him a few questions of my own. I’d very much like to thank George Champagne for taking the photographs and preparing the recording of the interview. I’d also like to thank Doug Fake and Fred Shepard for giving us a place to hold this meeting.
What drew you into the magical world of film music?
The extra-musical aspects of music have always interested me. My inspirations have often come from such sources as a poem, a story, an image, a painting, or an atmosphere, rather than a purely musical construction based on the abstract arrangement and rearrangement of tones themselves.
I could tell you the actual story of the beginning of it all. I don’t remember how old I was, but I must have been pretty young because you could get into the movies for a dime on the corner where I lived. I went to the movies one Saturday afternoon to see A TALE OF TWO CITIES. I was, to put it mildly, profoundly moved. The story was overwhelming and during the final moment of the film, when Sydney Carton was about to go to the guillotine, I thought that the music being played was the most beautiful I had ever heard. I may have wept; I was so completely swamped by this.
Two weeks later I was taken to a piano recital by my mother. The pianist had been playing at Bach and Beethoven when finally a new part of the program began and I was absolutely galvanized by what I heard. I was listening to the music and I said, “Mom, that’s Sydney Carton going to the guillotine.” She said, “No dear, that’s the Chopin E-Minor Prelude.” Well, that really excited me. The next Saturday I ran to the music store to get a copy of the E-Minor Prelude and as I played it, the entire scene unrolled before my eyes. I think it was in that moment I recognized the power of film music to add an emotional dimension to a scene.
I remember seeing a very early Henry Fonda movie, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN. This must have been in the thirties and when I got home from the theatre with my parents I sat down at the piano and played just about the whole score. They were pretty amazed and they just took it for granted it was something I knew how to do – and I did.
Probably the one film that totally exploded this whole interest into a burning intention was KING’S ROW. I thought that Korngold’s score was just about the greatest thing I’d ever heard. His skill at musically capturing the essence of a scene really staggered me. I wrote him a fan letter and even sent him a sketch of one of the themes from the film that I had written down after having seen the picture nine or ten times (since there were no soundtrack albums in those days, the only way to hear the score was to see the movie again and again). I had almost the whole score in my head – but this theme seemed to elude me. He very kindly sent me a long letter – I must have been 14 – complimenting me on my musical ear and sent me a correct version of the theme.
Many composers work their way up from insignificant films before anyone recognizes their name. I’m sure not many collectors could tell you what “Johnny” Williams’ first film score was. Yet you landed a rather significant film as your first assignment – RAISIN IN THE SUN. How did you manage that?
Well, that wasn’t my first feature film. I really started writing for films when I was in the Air Force during the Korean War. I actually joined the Air Force for 4 years because the Commanding Officer of the documentary film squadron wanted a composer on the staff, after I suggested the idea to him. Here was an extraordinary opportunity to compose for films. A chance for on the job training.
I really didn’t know anything about film scoring in a technical way, but I figured that little as I knew, it must be more than they did. I wrote countless scores including one for a big historical film called THIS IS RUSSIA. I, a mere corporal, was given the chance to write an hour and a half film score to be played by the 90-piece U.S. Air Force Symphony Orchestra, which was principally composed of men from Juilliard, Eastman, and Curtis. There was nobody there to teach me the craft of film scoring. For example, I had never heard of a click track so I figured out the principle for myself.
Four years in the Air Force taught me a lot about composing for films and I came out with a lot of tapes. While in the film squadron I had met two officers who shortly after leaving the Air Force small feature films which they asked me to score, one was called YELLOWNECK and the second had the embarrassing title of NAKED IN THE SUN, even though it had nothing to do with nudity. And then I came to New York where I got started in the theatre. One of my first theatre scores was for David Susskind’s RASHOMON, directed by Peter Glenville, an assignment which I received with a bit of help from Leonard Bernstein, whom I had known in my college days.
When David Susskind did RAISIN IN THE SUN, he wanted to bring an entire New York crew to Hollywood. We weren’t very popular with the studio folks when we went out there. Susskind was also responsible for REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT which he asked me to score, and also my first TV assignment, still one of my very favorites, THE POWER AND THE GLORY. The final answer is that it was through my connections with the theatre in New York that my film career began.
I’ve heard that you created a concert piece derived from your beautiful score to THE MIRACLE WORKER, is this true?
It still remains one of my favorite scores. There are many scores that you write which you realize have a certain life and validity in their original context, but when separated from the film become a series of background cues. There are scores that have enough musical substance of their own to hold up in a non-film setting. I felt that the MIRACLE WORKER had a thematic integrity which would play in a concert hall.
Interestingly, when I compose a film score I am always vaguely aware (and sometimes’ not so vaguely) of the connection between one piece of music and the next, even if there’s a strip of film in between that has no music. I always feel that in a certain way the music is picking up where it left off, not necessarily for the purpose of an eventual suite, but because the film score should have an organic life of its own.
I found making a suite of THE MIRACLE WORKER quite easy, because one piece seemed to flow into the next. It’s exactly the same as the original film score, with the slight exception of the expansion of the orchestra to almost standard symphonic proportions. It’s only been performed once, by the San Diego Symphony, conducted by Charles Ketcham. It was done at an open air summer concert and I suddenly realized as I heard it that the setting for a piece of music is crucial to how it is received. THE MIRACLE WORKER is such an intimate and delicate score that in a great outdoor bowl, even on a summer night, it got lost. The ambience was not intimate enough. It probably would be heard at its best in a smallish concert hall played by a chamber orchestra.
Amazingly, there is hardly a note from the original score that does not appear in the symphonic suite. I jus t couldn’t bear to let anything go.
You composed both the film and the Broadway versions of BECKET. Many collectors are familiar with the film score, but know virtually nothing about the Broadway score. Does it bear any similarity to the film score or is it all new, material?
When Glanville made BECKET into a film he asked me to come to England to expand my little theatre score into a full-blown film score. Actually, not too much of the theatre score remains. A few themes I did retain in the film version, and the essential style of the music.
Your score to THE COMEDIANS is rather unusual. Do you feel it was one of your more challenging scores, and how did you choose to approach the score?
Definitely, and also one of the most exciting. This was another Peter Glenville film and one thing he was terribly worried about was that any kind of music would soft en the very gritty edge of the Graham Greene novel. For example, I had written a love theme which I felt was anguished, unhappy, and restless. Peter felt that even so it made him nervous, and that it was still too pretty, too warm, too haunting. It didn’t have the quality he was looking for.
Another fascinating aspect for me was that the Haitian children were obliged to sing every day in school a chant in praise of their leader Duvalier – it is kind of a ritual chant. It was a horrifying thought: glorifying in song this absolute butcher as the great leader and saint. I was intrigued by the melody but I didn’t know what to do with it. So finally we got a bunch of English school girls into the studio one day and recorded them. I conducted them singing this chant with their very correct British accents. After that I embedded this chant into the Main Title and built Haitian rhythm and atmosphere around it so that it floated into view and out of view. I thought it was one of the most effective moments in the film, because of the tremendous irony of the girls’ sweet voices singing this hymn of praise to a ruthless dictator.
This was the only time in my entire collaboration with Glenville when I was unhappy. He got so nervous about the danger of the music smoothing over the hard edge of the story, that after the film had been dubbed and I had left Paris, he went back to the dubbing studio and remixed many sections of it, sort of dipping the music out at certain moments in a desperate move to correct the situation. In the movie version I’m afraid the score sounds a bit erratic. It doesn’t do what I had intended. In fact, of all the directors I’ve worked with, Glenville had perhaps the most unerring sensitivity about the relation of music to a scene. I feel this was a rare lapse of judgement. I’m very grateful for the great recording by John Richards in which the score is intact.
Although you haven’t done many sequels, you composed an exciting score for ROOSTER COGBURN, the sequel to TRUE GRIT. Were you at all influenced by the Elmer Bernstein original score?
I’ve never seen TRUE GRIT. I didn’t make a special effort to avoid it, but I’d never seen it. I was having to deal with Hal Wallis, whom I’d only worked with once before, on BECKET. It was very tricky dealing with him. He was a cranky type, very canny, very perceptive, but not someone with whom I had very good chemistry. I did try my best, and he invited me to his house one evening and ran ROOSTER COGBURN in his living room on a screen that occupied a complete wall, with a projectionist in the next room. We sat there and watched it, and he said afterwards that he would want to hear some themes. I came back a week later with “the big tune”, a love theme, and two or three others. I had to play them for him and I was scared do death. He sat there glowering at me. Finally he said, “I think you’re exactly on the right track. It’s good, go on with it.” Of course that’s what you want to hear, so I went ahead with it. I must say it’s really not my favorite score, I’ve never been a great fan of westerns.
It vas originally rumored that John Williams was to compose the score for METEOR, but the assignment went to you…
Yes, I think he was. We have a great mutual admiration, and if I’m not mistaken the producer, Sandy Howard, wanted John Williams because he was at the time the premier disaster-movie composer. I never did know exactly why John elected not to do it, whether the picture wasn’t good enough, or he didn’t have time, or was tired of doing that sort of movie. But John apparently said to Sandy, “I don’t think I can do it, why don’t you get Larry?” It was just as simple as that, I had already done one film for Howard – RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE – and Sandy and I got along very well. There may have been one or two other films that John was considered for or wanted to do including CLASH OF THE TITANS, that came to me. I’m not vain or proud or sensitive about that subject. John is at the top of the heap, but once you get a picture it doesn’t matter who was originally slated, it’s now your responsibility, your job, and your opportunity.
Over the past several years, the bulk of your work has been for major miniseries such as GEORGE WASHINGTON, PETER THE GREAT, and THE BOURNE IDENTITY. Why is it that you’ve chosen to work in the television medium rather than for motion pictures?
I don’t think it’s that I chose television; I think that television chose me. There is a certain freedom and a certain range in motion pictures that you don’t get in television. Television is a limited medium because of the vastness of the audience whom it has to be aimed at. In a way, you’re composing for a common denominator. You can’t really gear as television show for a particular audience as is possible in motion pictures. You’re always leaning to the middle ground. I really do love working in features. There’s usually more time, a bigger production budget, and therefore more recording time, and more orchestral possibilities. On the other hand, there is a certain kind of film that I really enjoy doing that is rare now in feature films. They are not making biographies like WASHINGTON or PETER THE GREAT, or a story like ANASTASIA – which used to be very much the film stuff. I find that I have a certain possibility with miniseries that I would not have in films, especially since a great many films made today don’t suit my particular interest or talent. Still, the ‘opportunities for a composer in features are undeniably rich and various.
If you were asked to place one of your scores in a time capsule that wouldn’t be opened for one hundred years, which would it be?
Can’t tell you. It’s like asking a father of five to pick his favorite child. I’m fond of my youthful efforts, BECKET, THE COMEDIANS, and THE MIRACLE WORKER. I’m also partial to ANASTASIA and BRASS TARGET. THE MIRACLE WORKER holds a very special place in my heart. I suppose if I was pressed to the wall that would be the one, but I think by selecting it I would leave out of the Time Capsule many other aspects of my work which are especially characteristic.
Is there any score that you wish you could put in a cement container and dump into the Pacific?
(Laughs) I’m not sure there’s a whole score. I certainly know there are cues that didn’t work, and entire scores that are eminently forgettable! It’s not so much a question of the cement container. That is, in itself, a kind of inverse egoism. But, if you asked me whether any of my scores would make a concert for Carnegie Hall, the answer would definitely be: only a few. Some scores are best where they are, doing a workmanlike job for a film, but without any special character. Hardly any of my work really embarrasses me, although sometimes I can listen to an old TV score and say, “Well, that was kind of a routine job.” Of course, it is a fact that composers like J.B. Bach occasionally turned in merely routine jobs, but needless to add, his routine is not exactly my routine. Almost every composer has his moments of more or less high inspiration, and also moments when he simply relies on his craft to do a decent, professional piece of work.
How do you feel about the American Federation of Musicians “re-use” policy, which requires the entire orchestra fee to be paid a second time if an album is to be issued?
I don’t have strong feelings for it. If I was a playing musician, I would welcome it. If someone was going to compound the profit of my work without paying for it, I would certainly object. It does, however, produce problems for a composer who would like records released. It sometimes drives us to use orchestras in places where re-use fees aren’t applicable, orchestras which are not at the standard of Hollywood or New York.
I’m not in principle opposed to the re-use fee. I think it’s legitimate for the musicians. I think, however, like all things that begin as being justifiable and then turn into something else; the musicians’ union has made demands that ultimately work against the union’s purpose. They just drive people away because one can’t afford to comply with these incredible demands. For someone who grew up in a family that was solidly pro-union, I have come to see that this whole situation can turn into its opposite when a union is working against the interests of its members. (Hear, hear! -LVDV).
Several of your albums have appeared as bootlegs – THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is one of them. Some composers feel insulted by bootleg issues of their scores, while others are flattered. How do you stand on the issue?
In the case of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, the album is preposterously out of shape. The cues were rolled onto the record in the order that they were recorded and given wrong titles, all completely jumbled and without any concept whatever. It’s just a complete hash of my original intention and while the original pieces are there, as an album it’s non-existent and I think that sort of butchery is unconscionable. If there were a way to stop it I would, but frankly, I’d rather spend the energy writing more music and let somebody else worry about it. I do find it a disastrous situation.
You’ve composed some rather important feature films and television miniseries. You are a fantastic composer, yet you do not seem to be getting the recognition you deserve – you’re underrated. Why do you think that is?
I really can’t say. It may be because so much of what I’ve done is thought of as being in the large-scale symphonic tradition and perhaps many producers are unaware that I’ve worked in other idioms as well – certainly more avant-garde, with smaller-sized orchestras, and electronics – and that my range is much wider than the historical epic or the lush love story. If there are reasons beyond that they elude me. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I refuse to live in Los Angeles!
Which of your work that is yet unreleased would you most like to see recorded?
Certainly THE MIRACLE WORKER is up there (if not at the top of the list). Very close behind is THE POWER AND THE GLORY. RAISIN IN THE SUN, and REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT. I think A GUNFIGHT, although I haven’t heard it in quite a while, might make an interesting album. There was a lot of interesting music in WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN. Whether it would make an album, I’m not sure. Maybe it could work in conjunction with the wonderful songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which were very much a part of the score.