For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been at Portland Center Stage as part of the orchestra for a production of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The show is a musical comedy, following a rather unusual group of children (as well as some audience volunteers) through a farcical spelling bee in which the word the students are challenged with is just as likely to be chosen because of its ridiculous definition as its difficulty to spell.
The score to the show is an uncommon combination of instruments, with myself on reeds (flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone), Liz Byrd on cello, Ben Wasson on percussion, Kurt Crowley on synthesizer, and our musical director, Rick Lewis, on piano. Instead of playing from an orchestra pit below and in front of the stage, our orchestra instead plays behind the back wall of the stage (if Superman were in the audience with his X-ray vision, he’d see us performing behind the actors) with the music piped in through a sound system.
William Finn’s compositions for the show run the gamut from quirky themes that complement the comedy on stage, to powerful melodies that support the more emotional moments. Unlike some musicals, where orchestras get bored quickly with ironically the often less-than-musical compostions, there’s always something new to find in Finn’s score, which I’ve been scouring to find bits and pieces to serve as inspirations for Duo Chronicles pieces.
The title for this piece is taken from the lyrics of a song in the show called “Woe is Me,” sung by a character who is pushed by her two dads to “be smart, be cool, be adult” and “be remarkably adroit in social situations.” I toyed with other titles that didn’t sound as flippant, but in the end, it seemed like that line just worked best. In the show, the cast breaks into a Stomp-inspired dance section in the middle of “Woe is Me,” where the 3-part vocals harmonies are accompanied by the percussion sounds made by clapping, stomping, and dancing on stage. Something about 3-part vocal a cappella always gets me interested, so from the first time that I heard that section performed by the PCS cast, I knew I wanted to do something with it.
For the Duo Chronicles piece, I took that section and started altering it bit by bit. The first change was the time signature — instead of being 4/4 like the piece in the show, our version is in 7/4. The next, was the structure — we start with the “Be Smart, Be Cool” section, and the “Woe is Me ” hook happens in the middle. The vocals have been replaced by three overdubbed saxophone parts. Instead of the Stomp-inspired percussion, Clay and I use a couple tracks of clapping and a track of using storage boxes as percussion instruments.
Throughout the song, I tried to reference each of the distinct sections from Finn’s composition. There are direct references in the piano part, the clarinet parts, and certainly the saxophone parts. After all of the revisions and editing, making it fit the Duo Chronicles style, it ended up farther from Finn’s “Woe is Me” than I had intended originally, but only because Clay and I are putting our own spin on things. Check out the sheet music from the link below.
Since I’m at Portland Center Stage doing this show eight times a week until the end of June, it wouldn’t surprise me if another Finn-inspired song makes its way into the Duo Chronicles songbook before we’re done.