Rising to the Occasion // By Mary-Mitchell Campbell
A twist of the arm led composer & music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell to one of her most cherished theatre memories.
I moved to New York in my early twenties with the goal of becoming a music director. Coming from the south with very few connections in the industry, no one thought this was a good idea. I was convinced it was important to move to New York and give it a try. I had gone to the Greenville, South Carolina library and researched all the jobs that existed in theater and learned about what a music director did. My lifelong friend, Mark Canavera, was with me, and as we were leaving the library, I said to him, “I found the job I want: music director.” I had worked in dinner theater and done one professional regional show—music director was the job I believed I wanted to pursue. I had done a little arranging, orchestrating, and composing, and I loved all of those things, but I discovered that people wanted to be able to put me “in a box” so I simply told everyone I was a music director only.
Then I met Jack Cummings III. I knew his wife, Barbara Walsh, from a very whirlwind summer at The O’Neil Theater Center in 1999. She kept telling me about her talented husband and invited me to come to Richmond, Virginia and see a production of Violet he had directed.
Jack was, and definitely still is, unlike anyone I had ever met before. Two years later, when he shared with me his plans to start a theater company he wanted me to be part of, I was elated! When he told me about his plans to do a new take on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and have me compose a score to go with it, I was terrified.
I think I tried my “I’m really just a music director” routine with him, but luckily Jack has the uncanny ability to convince you to do things that you aren’t sure about.
He came to my apartment and pulled out a well-worn copy of the play, complete with specific musical requests. I would “audition” ideas for him, he would have incredibly specific responses (imagine a picky eater at a tasting menu), and I would jot down the things he responded to, filing them away to expand on later. His version of Our Town was unlike any other version I had heard of. The Stage Manager was played by a young girl and Emily and George were played by actors in their sixties. It was a truly artistic concept and I wanted to be able to give it the support he was looking for.
The opening of the play was the section that was the most concerning for me. He gave me some text from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities that spoke to the great circle of life and asked me to write an original song that would start the show. This was followed by a montage of lines that needed to be musicalized as a stand-alone piece—Jack had asked each member of the cast to pick their favorite line from the play and created a poetic “mash-up’” of dialogue.
I called my friend Jenni Frost, who had gone to college with me, and asked her to come sing the opening song as well as some hymns with me in the background during some church scenes. I came up with quirky titles for themes: “running down the stairs,” “coming home from school,” “waking up,” as well as a love theme for George and Emily. My friend Alden Terry joined us on cello.
Every night, I watched this beautiful story be told by gorgeous actors in a tiny theater in the East Village. Every night, Jenni and Alden and I were part of the storytelling. At the time, we knew we were part of a special production—one where the audience would be deeply moved and where seeing Barbara Andres and Tom Ligon play Emily and George was profoundly impactful. For me, it was the gateway into the kind of connection that comes from gathering groups of people in a room to have an experience together. Where heartbeats align, community agreements are made, and everyone feels less alone. I have held on to that feeling during this pandemic and I can’t wait to return to live experiences. I look back on my memories of that connection with great fondness, the way Emily looks back on her life in Our Town:
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”
Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Jack Cummings III reconstructed the opening to Our Town 15 years after their 2002 opening, at Transport Group’s 2017 gala honoring Mary-Mitchell. The original sheet music long gone, the score was transcribed from cassette tapes, made for reference during the “audition” process in Mary-Mitchell’s apartment, when the score was first written. Many of the original cast members returned to recreate this moment. Please view the video below.
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