Jazz Tangcay Talks to Tony Award nominee Daniel Kluger on the stripped-down sound of Oklahoma
Daniel Kluger is in New York talking about the sounds of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He grew up with the sounds of the duo composers who staged and defined the sound of the American musicals, but he didn’t have a strong relationship with Oklahoma, not until he had to work on it. Stripped of the big band, this Tony-nominated revival has done away with a big Broadway orchestra, instead, there are just seven musicians on stage, with the actors and right there with the audience. It’s a different sound but the lyrics and text haven’t changed. I caught up with Kluger to walk through reviving Oklahoma and creating the sounds of this great American musical.
What was your relationship with Oklahoma before coming into this?
I was a layman. I knew the songs in the way that I think the general population knows them. I grew up playing a lot of the other Rodgers and Hammerstein on the piano and I also play Jazz piano and learned a lot of the traditional Broadway canon that way. I didn’t have a strong relationship with Oklahoma and I got to learn about it as I was working on it.
How do you approach a revival especially for something like Oklahoma?
In the production, we didn’t change the text and the songs. That’s all unchanged. At the same time, we had a collaborative relationship with the estates from the beginning. That’s the only way something like this can happen. We had to agree on guiding principles for the process. We would make sure the music functions dramatically in the way it was always meant to. For Richard Rodgers, he’s a genius at melody and harmony. We decided to leave the melody and harmony untouched at all times. That allowed us to make other instrumental choices.
You’re not dealing with a full Broadway orchestra, instead, you have seven musicians. Talk about how that helped to create the soundscape.
The limitation of having only seven players, you have to turn that into a feature. It means that a lot of the original orchestration that Robert Russell Bennett created when he defined the sound of Broadway in 1943 – you had lyrical orchestral lines that are played by a full section. You could play those on a pluck string instrument like a banjo or mandolin. They take on a different intimacy and fragility because they are lyrical and in being pluck instruments, there’s a difference in the way the line is articulated. It just makes you lean into the music in a different way.
How has technology played a part in this revival?
The work of a composer these days is all about making high-quality demos and rendering from the beginning. Most of the work I do is scoring. We did do a fair amount of software demoing of our Dream Ballet which is heavily electronic and very different in sound from the rest of the piece. We did fully realized demo to the Dream Ballet befor we recorded that. Most of the show though has an acoustic aesthetic. Technology helps to make you solve problems when production value is on a budget and timeline. The luxury of developing this project is that we did three productions and we got to use live human musicians. Actually, we revised the arrangements three times since 2015. The band came to my apartment and we had two workshops during that Spring, testing out approaches to how the band was going to work. It’s something you can do logically, but there’s nothing like being able to see how it feels when someone is in the room playing with you. The director wanted to hear how it sounded and was in the room, so we didn’t have to solely rely on technology.
Talk about the choice of instruments to bring Oklahoma into 2019.
It’s an homage to the Punch Brothers. We have banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitar that function as a trio of pluck instruments. Then we have bass cello and violin. But our secret weapon is the pedal steel guitar which is able to provide a range of sounds. It can provide a lush sound and fill out the string section. There’s something really evocative about the pedal steel, that’s our instrumentation for the acoustic.
During the Dream Ballet, we really try to change the sound. There are synthesizers and we produced a recording of it that has a lot fo sonic experimentation. Drew Levy our sound designer did pretty meticulous mixing in the theater.
What was the collaboration with Daniel on this, he sounded really involved?
The best thing about collaborating with him is that he creates a really strong ethic for what the production is doing. That’s one of the best things you can have in a director, this clear sense of what you’re doing and why. For him, in this, he said, “We are all in the same room together – the actors, the musicians, the audience. We want to feature how the performers are interacting with each other, the musicians and the audience.” That became the guiding principle with how to deal with the music because the musicians are right there in front of you. We’re only going to make choices that feature their musicianship. It guides the decision-making process at what’s important at every given moment so your focus isn’t split.
What were you doing the morning the Tonys were announced?
I had to work late the night before, so I woke up to text messages from a lot of friends. And my mother!
The ‘Tony Awards’ air on CBS on June 9, 2019