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Reflecting On the Ambersons--Nine Years Later

Taking a moment to reflect today on one of my own works, the musical adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons. My collaborator, Brian Vinero, called me one summer day and said he was working on a new adapatation of this book by Booth Tarkington. I was more familiar with the Orson Welles film and of course the beautiful Bernard Herrmann score. After talking with Brian a bit, I decided to head out and find the book to read up on this story first hand.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is set in the early 20th Century, sort of the time when the Gilded Age is coming to a close and new wealth is being created by a variety of mechanical advancements, among them the automobile. The story itself is set in a fictionalized version of Indianapolis where the patriarch Amberson has achieved great wealth. But similar to the more familiar Crawley's of Downtown Abbey, the wealth here is tenuous and the Amberson fortune will not be able to overcome the changes of the time. Against that backdrop is a story of somewhat unrequited love with a precocious young and spoiled George Amberson falling in love with the young Lucy Morgan. As is often the case, there is a bit of a history with the parents of these two as well which provides for parallel stories dealing with their romantic entanglements and struggles.

While reading the novel, I had several little musical ideas that came to me that were more like time and place settings. A sort of Americana style two-step that one might encounter in music of the time. I actually still have that recording saved on the Clavinova here. It would morph into the opening music for the show. Brian's resulting book for the musical was filled with some great opportunities for music. Among these was an extended ballroom scene where the music itself must transition into one of the duets of the show (between George and Lucy), "Marking Time". You can hear a portion of that on the audio page here along with some other clips. (After completing the score, I went back and arranged a piano suite which incorporates most of the waltzes from the show, Amberson Waltzes, available on the Off 2 Broadway release.)

Unlike my first foray into musical theater (The Jurgens File), I decided to approach this project by working on things that grabbed my attention. Specific sequences and lyrics stood out to me and I decided to grab those and work from there. This time, having read the story and being familiar with the arc of the characters, i felt it would be a bit more interesting to work on pieces specifically for each across the show. Tweaking things after everything was completed would then help tie up any loose ideas. This seemed to work quite well overall and there are some wonderful sequences throughout the show.

Personal favorites of mine are songs for Lucy and George. Lucy sings this reflective song about how things are different as you grow up and how what we once thought we had disappears as we age. "Little Children" is one of my personal favorite songs I've written and even on the demo when I hear it I tend to tear up a bit. There are actually moments in several of the projects Brian and I have done that feature these poignant moments reflective of childhood that tend to be personal favorites in each show. The other song is George's "Somewhere in the City". For this we move beyond the period we are in and come to a very modernistic ballad with hints of Sondheim in the structure and sound of the music. Some have commented on this as a sort of "breakthrough" moment in my own compositional style and approach.

Believe it or not, the riches-to-rags Amberson story has yet to receive its full production. Nine years ago we presented the opening number from the show at the MN Fringe Festival (along with several other "in development" projects) and it was noted as one that deserved a full production. Perhaps someday that will be the case, but for now at least we have a few samples from the demo which can be heard on the site here and I performed some of the numbers for the Off 2 Broadway album. Since then, Brian and I had completed three other musicals, two of which are holiday shows.

If you happen to be a theater company looking for some new musical works, drop me a note and I would be more than happy to send you some samples to hear. The Magnificent Ambersons has an engaging story with some wonderful music if I do say so myself.


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