When asked how to categorize the score for the new Broadway-bound musical Bright Star, currently wrapping up an out-of-town engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., actor-writer-songwriter Steve Martin, who has co-composed the score with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, says, “Americana.”
He says he uses this word because “it’s not folk music and it’s not bluegrass. It lies somewhere in between. I think we both love melody and that’s stemming from our love of musicals that we grew up with that had very, very strong melodies. In fact, that’s one of the motivations that made us want to do it. We wanted to create something melodic and strong, and we wanted the audience to go out humming tunes when they left.”
Bright Star had a marvelously interesting beginning: It all started in Brickell’s kitchen. While she was cooking, she was also listening to a track that Martin had sent of a banjo line for a song. “I noticed when this one part rolled around, I would sing, ‘Woo-woo,’ and it dawned on me that it sounded a little bit like a train,” Brickell says.
This gut response to Martin’s music quickly sent Brickell to her computer. Knowing that she wanted to write a song about a train with the music, she remembers how she started Googling names of Southern trains. She was trying “to see if I could find a beautiful sounding name, a real name, and see where it ran, and try to make up a story.”
Music and technology quickly conspired to give Martin and Brickell not only a song, “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby,” which they recorded on their Grammy Award–winning 2013 album Love Has Come for You, but also the beginnings of their new show.
Martin says that while the show, which unfolds in both the 1920s and 1940s, was inspired by the tale Brickell found, it is story about a Southern woman who discovers that her past is not what she thought it was and is one that “we made up, a hypothetical that’s built around this event.” Brickell adds, “Steve basically took the one incident and then his imagination took over.”
Not only is the way in which the songwriters came to the idea of Bright Star extraordinary, so too is the way in which they work together. It’s something that has genuinely astonished Bright Star’s director, Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie. “I’ve never worked with two composers,” he says. “They both write the score. It is the most interesting process. Steve will write a banjo line, chordal progressions, etc., and then Edie writes melodically on top of that. So there are actually two composers. There’s one lyricist [Brickell]. But there are actually two composers making the song. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
What Martin and Brickell seem to be enjoying now is the fact that, after several years, their formula still continues to evolve and that they often vary the way they develop a tune. Brickell says that in a couple of instances, she developed a melody first, and then Martin created the banjo line. And Martin is quick to note: “It’s also important to point out that Edie composed on the piano two beautiful songs just on her own that are very, very important to the musical.”
Martin’s comment also illustrates something else that has happened as he and Brickell have continued to hone the piece through its various incarnations. They have started thinking about the differences between writing a stand-alone song and one that fits into the fabric of a new American musical.
Bobbie notes: “What I think happened was, when Steve and Edie first sketched out the story, they stuffed in — and I use that word specifically — songs that were from the album [Love Has Come for You] that they wrote. And they were like markers. They were like signposts, but as the story changed and as those songs became ones that weren’t character- or plot-driven, they simply fell away.”
Martin echoes this. “We had pre-existing songs, and the songs that we put in were, largely, eventually cut,” he says. “Then we would write new songs for situations and we realized that was the better route. Edie was so brilliant with the lyrics. She could make them very, very specific to our characters and our situations.”
“I thought that was the most fun, writing songs specifically for characters rather than applying other songs we’d already written to the musical,” Brickell says. And after she’d started thinking in this way, she adds, “I wanted to make every scene fresh once we’d started and realized that it sounded so much better to do that, to be specific.”
As of this writing, the show contains almost entirely new material that Martin and Brickell have written for Bright Star; only two songs remain from the initial ones that they included in the show’s score: “Asheville” (recorded as “When You Get to Asheville” on Love Has Come for You) and “Sun Is Gonna Shine for You.”
What’s extraordinary about these two numbers is that they aren’t even exactly the same as they were when they were initially written. In the case of “Sun,” Bobbie describes how it’s been repurposed even as the show has transformed. “It’s now the song that’s the opening of the second act, sung by everybody in the show.” Originally, Bobbie says, it was “sung by a character who no longer exists and a bunch of children learning French.”
Bobbie jokes about one other number, and how auspicious it was for the project as a whole: “I knew I was working with open-minded writers when their Grammy-winning song, ‘Love Has Come for You,’ didn’t have to be part of the show. And I thought, If they are willing to get rid of the title song of that album, these people are ready to go to work.”
Audiences arriving at the Kennedy Center or at the Cort Theatre later this year may find that they recognize other numbers from the show. That’s because the team recorded eight of them on the album So Familiar, released just two months ago. For Martin, it was a chance to “present the way we wrote the songs as songs.” For example, he points toward the number “Another Round.”
“It was written very early in the process,” Martin says. “And in the show, we decided to change it into another form, and it became a sort of Texas-swing song.” Beyond the number changing stylistically, it also changed lyrically. “It actually changed from one character to another,” Martin says. “I am just happy that we have the original version of ‘Another Round’ on our record because I love these lyrics so much.”
For Peter Asher, the legendary multi–Grammy winning record-producer who served as producer for both of the Martin-Brickell albums and who is serving as musical supervisor on the show, the albums represented an opportunity to present Martin and Brickell’s work so that it would “make the best possible record.”
Asher explains that while he was in the studio, “I felt no compunction to stick to any particular framework in terms of era, in terms of tonality, it terms of anything. So if I wanted to put a baritone saxophone on a track, I did.”
In the theatre, however, Asher, whose work on Bright Star includes collaborating with the writing team, director Bobbie, musical director and vocal arranger Rob Berman, and orchestrator August Eriksmoen, understands that “you’re using one band, one orchestra, one set of instruments throughout . . . to create a basic consistency of an overall tone.” In addition, he says that the orchestrations also need to reflect the era in which the action is occurring.
As this has happened, Asher says, “our orchestrator has done a terrific job.” Brickell simply enthuses about the new sound the songs have in the theatre: “Everything [is] so much more lush and brilliant. It was as if they took this one-story building and made this architectural work of art. It just kept growing and growing until it was like a beautiful modern high-rise, but made with classic stone, not glass.”