A career in the theater as a composer

Bluegrass at the Guthrie
Composer Adam Wernick (left) plays guitar at a rehearsal with the musicians who provide bluegrass numbers in the Guthrie's new production of William Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale."
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

It's preview week for the Guthrie Theater's new production of Shakespeare's "The Winters Tale," and one of the people scrambling to get things ready is composer Adam Wernick.

Just as the actors are honing their performances Wernick will refine the music right up to Friday's opening night.

In the Guthrie's recording studio Adam Wernick guides a pianist on a piece for the first act of "The Winter's Tale."

After listening to a first run-through he asks for the tempo to markedly increase after the third bar.

Wernick will use the piano sound to build a nightmare effect so he wants it done in a specific way.

But here's what's surprising: Wernick only began seriously composing this score a couple of weeks ago, after actors began rehearsals.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

"I don't usually write that much music in advance of the first rehearsal because I respond so much to what I see on-stage from the actors and the final set design and the costumes and that sort of stuff," he said during a break.

Adam Wernick
Adam wernick has been composing music for the theater for 25 years. While months of thought goes into the process, he rarely composes much before rehearsals begin for a show so he can get a sesne of a production.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

It's a process he's developed over 25 years of composing for the stage. His career began as a college freshman in Philadelphia when he saw a poster seeking a composer for a student production of "As You Like It."

"So I went and talked to the director and said 'I'd like to do that,' and he didn't really have any other options, I don't think," Wernick laughs.

Wernick was a cello player whose father was a composer who had worked for the stage. His mother was a professional musician too.

Things went so well with that first show he began to make a name for himself, first in Philadelphia and then in the regional theaters in Washington DC, California, Denver and also off-Broadway. One production even went to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

Jonathan Munby
Director Jonathan Munby (right) rehearses with the cast of "The Winter's Tale." he says music is integral to his plays, and as a briton doing a debut production in the US, having a composer such as Adam Wernick to provide the right musical nuances for American audiences is vital
Image courtesy of the Guthrie Theater, photographer T. Charles Erickson

While composition can be taught, Wernick believes composing for the stage is something different. He says to do it well requires a combination of musical instinct, feel, and taste which can't be learned.

"To match a dramatic moment with the right musical texture or harmony that's just something that is either there or not," he said.

And there's the important element of writing music that lasts just the right amount of time to match the action on stage.

Five years ago Wernick moved to his wife's native Twin Cities. Since then he's attracted a lot of attention for his work on the Guthrie's "Streetcar Named Desire." Now he's back for "The Winter's Tale."

While he may have only started writing a few weeks ago Wernick began discussing musical possibilities last summer with British director Jonathan Munby. Music is always essential to a Munby production, and the director says as an outsider making his US debut he really needed Wernick's expertise.

Michael Thomas Holmes as Autolycus in the Guthrie Theater production of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Holmes had to learn guitar for the role, which involves several songs.
Image provided by the Guthrie Theater, photo by T. Charles Erickson

"I would come with an idea or a sense of what I wanted," Munby said. "But I needed Adam then to feed me with ideas, and also to respond to my instinct in terms of something more concrete and more real."

The Winter's Tale poses a very specific dramatic challenge. The two acts take place in very different places, Sicilia and Bohemia, 16 years apart.

Munby decided to set the first act in a McCarthyite 1950's and the second in a more hippy-like 1960's Minnesota. Wernick describes it as writing music for two different plays.

Back at the recording studio the jazz musicians leave, and are replaced by bluegrass musicians who'll play live during the second act.

The lyrics are a poem by Christopher Marlow, but the music is Adam Wernick's.

There are several other songs in the second act. This was the only music Wernick wrote early because they are performed by actor Michael Thomas Holmes as Autolychus. Holmes had to learn to play guitar for the part. He admits it was intimidating to play Wernick's music back to him.

"He's very forgiving," Holmes said. "Before.. I am sure it was something like, "C'mon. C'mon -C'MON!" I mean, he hasn't said that of course, but obviously he composed it and so he wants to make sure that it's heard and I want to do it the way that it's composed."

"The Winter's Tale" opens Friday night, and Wernick will be working with actors, director and musicians till the last moment to make sure everything fits just right.

"There's a lot of re-writing," he said.

It sounds almost like he enjoys it, but Wernick quickly denies that.

"I do not relish the challenge," he laughs. "I'm just used to it."

Wernick is not sure what his next stage project might be, but he'll be working on his other musical enterprise, learning to play jazz piano.