Behind the Curtain: Spartanburg Little Theatre’s ‘Gatsby’ Adds Live Music to Jazz Age Classic

AND ALL THAT JAZZ (COUNTRY, HIP-HOP, POP…) Creating a timeless soundtrack for The Great Gatsby

When audiences enter the theater for Spartanburg Little Theatre’s highly-anticipated production of The Great Gatsby, they’ll notice something they don’t usually see in a non-musical play: A live jazz band and singer on stage!

SLT executive artistic director Jay Coffman sits down with director Ashley Robinson and music director Holt McCarley for a behind-the-scenes deep dive into the process, inspiration, and challenges of bringing modern and traditional music together to create a familiar and fresh Gatsby soundtrack for 2022. SEE THE GREAT GATSBY SPOTIFY PLAYLIST BELOW!

Jay Coffman: Hi guys, thanks for sitting down with me today! So, it must be said in advance that this stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby isn’t a “musical”. Why did you choose to add live music to this production?

Ashley Robinson: The whole thing pulses to a distinct rhythm, but I wanted it to blossom in genre so it didn’t feel like a museum piece, to come alive for all ages in 2022. So we took songs from the last hundred years and put them into a Jazz Age style.

JC: Do you think there’s something about Gatsby that makes it any more receptive to the addition of live music and song?

Holt McCarley: Even though our approach to the music in this production is a bit of a “fresher” take, it’s still written into the script that the life and blood of this story revolve around its musical attributes. The roaring ‘20s was such an essential period of growth for individual AND group expression, dance, sexuality, fashion, parties… music was at the heart of all that. We wanted to encapsulate the excitement, mystery, glamour, and tragedy of this story within the music and I think we’ve managed to do just that.

JC: Aside from just being a lot of fun, does adding live music to Gatsby serve any specific function?

AR: Well, it moves us along in transitions (of which there are many in this script), but it also allows us to comment on the action, having a live singer directly addressing the audience, an omnipresence, the window into their world.

HM: There are various music cues written into the script (Gatsby and Daisy’s “love theme,” the Charleston, “lively” music, etc.) but we took it one step further by assigning specific narrative moments to single songs (The love theme, for example, is a version of “Creep” by Radiohead that shows up in various guises throughout the show). I think these special added touches give the show an approachability and almost cinematic nuance that will appeal to a greater number of people.

JC: So, what kinds of songs and music can the audience expect to hear?

AR: Expect standards of the time— Charleston, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all mixed with Jimmy Buffett and Lady Gaga!

HM: As Ashley said, any song within the last 100 years was free game. Anything from Garth Brooks, Cole Porter, and the Beatles to Miley Cyrus, Shaggy, Radiohead, and Madonna.

JC: A whole century of music. No pressure! How did you narrow down your song choices?

HM: I think the inspiration behind the choosing of these songs was rooted in the narrative. My intention was to support the evolution (and devolution) of these characters through song, while also adding an element of surprise. Any era within the last 100 years was fair game, and I wanted the audience to ask “What’s next?” It promotes continuous audience engagement when you can give them something to hold on to. “Aha! I love this song.”

JC: In addition to standards, in many cases you’re taking very modern pop/country/hip hop/dance songs and rearranging them in a style that would fit seamlessly in Gatsby’s world and time. How did you arrange and choose the instrumentation for these tracks?

AR: Holt McCarley did all this brilliantly. He’s such a talent.

HM: The instrumentation was chosen by me sitting down and asking, “How many colors, textures, and emotions can I create with as few players as possible?” Besides piano, and percussion – which to me were the two essentials – I went through brass, woodwinds and strings and decide what felt to me to be the most versatile and appropriate in color/character and ultimately decided on a clarinet/sax combo, and a double bass/guitar combo, in addition to piano and drums.

JC: It definitely sounds like an artistic challenge!

HM: Translating modern music into a style that preceded that genre is extremely challenging, because you want it to be recognizable to the listener, while also attempting to say something new, while also trying not to write outside the musical confines of the period. It’s a bunch of different conflicting musical parameters thrown into a blender. Hopefully these conflicts produced a recognizable solution!

JC: What do you hope audiences come away with from this production?

HM: The music, as always, should serve to elevate and echo the narrative and morals of the characters. I hope with the music playing an essential part in the retelling of this classic tale, that the audience comes away having understood the impulses, failings, highs, and lows of each of these flawed (but ultimately human) characters.

AR: That Gatsby is truly timeless. Our society hasn’t changed in terms of how we deal with, and are obsessed with power, class, money and sex to the point of self-destruction.

Spartanburg Little Theatre’s production of The Great Gatsby runs March 4, 5, 11, 12 at 8 pm and March 6 and 13 at 3 pm. Tickets are available through the Chapman Cultural Center ticket office at (864) 542-2787 or www.spartanburglittletheatre.com.

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