The Music Behind Now Theseus, Now You Don't
By Tobias Cooper13/06/2023
Hi! This is the first blog post for our lovely new website, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a little retrospective piece about our last play - ‘Now Theseus, Now You Don’t’. Three months or so after the show wrapped I can happily say that it was a resounding success for the society, and I hope everyone who came to see it enjoyed it even a hundredth of how much Niamh and I enjoyed putting it together.
This blog is intended to be a space for members of Alexandrians (on the board or not) to share what they’ve been up to recently, provided they can make it somewhat tangential to classics. Please feel free to have a read through the posts as they appear - I’ll be promoting them on our socials - and if you’re so inclined, you’d be welcome to write a piece and email it in to [email protected] for it to be put on here, whether that’s something you’ve stumbled across in your research, or an old essay you think other people might be interested in, or just a critical analysis of Chiron’s portrayal in the Percy Jackson Disney+ series.
I, however, am not really a huge classics aficionado, despite somehow being landed with the responsibility of writing some of the society’s recent theatrical productions - hence why they are so enormously inaccurate to the original texts. My main degree is music, with a particular interest in composition and analysis, so when I got given the opportunity to write my first play (Metamorphoses) I knew I wanted to try and incorporate music into it. In the writing process for Metamorphoses I wrote a number of parody songs based on the text including a fantastic rewrite of ‘Love is an Open Door’ from Frozen for the story of Pyramus and Thisbe called ‘Loving You Through This Wall’. Trust me, if you know the story, that’s very clever and very funny. We ended up cutting a large majority of those scenes for a multitude of reasons - time constraints given the short production turnaround, them not really being that good, and everyone having no ability to sing - and stuck with the tried and trusted way of putting music into Alexandrians shows which is just getting Paddy to play guitar and sing one. With Theseus I felt a little more confident in my ability to run a show, so the music evolved quite naturally to what it became in February, and I felt like it was a great addition to take the production to the next level. Often our shows find themselves with a couple of clunky scene changes where members of the cast maybe aren’t a hundred percent confident with all their entrances and exits, or there isn’t very much space in the backstage area, or the audience just can hear a bit of shuffling about or whispering in transitional periods through the fault of nobody in particular, but by including incidental music I was able to eliminate many of these potential issues from arising in a way that elevated the production as a whole. That’ll do as an introduction to this, right?
Just to preface, I will be using some simple sheet music figures to illustrate what I’m discussing, but if you aren’t comfortable reading sheet music don’t worry! Most of what I’ll be talking about will be broad strokes about how I tried to personify each character through the music and hopefully not too much technical jargon. If you do happen to be reading this and a musician though, why not have a little tinkle of your instrument along with it? There are MIDI versions of the soundtrack available over on our SoundCloud, (link is at the bottom of this page) where I will also be uploading future scores for cast to reference but the sound quality isn’t the best in the world as it’s only from MuseScore. But without further ado, let’s get into the analysis!
The majority of the score consists of short motifs for the ‘main’ recurring characters, and these are intended to give the audience some insight into what the characters the theme represents are like. Here I’ll be giving a little rundown of why I made some of the compositional choices that I did, and with any luck it might give you some ideas of what to look out for in the music of our next shows.
Theme 1: Theseus
Given that it belongs to the titular character, Theseus’ theme understandably comes up quite a lot over the course of the play - not least when the band has to repeat it about a dozen times while Theseus goes round and untangles the audience, having just tied a length of string all around them in the previous scene. This means there are a few essential aspects to it that provided a framework for composing it - it needed to be simple, memorable, and easy to repeat. My method for achieving this was to pick a chord sequence that I felt resonated with the character, which you can see in the first four bars. The very core of Theseus’ story is about him travelling, so I used a very simple ascending progression in the key of F major, which is the home key for most of the play. I picked F major mainly because I compose while playing guitar or piano and I like to play in that key when playing those instruments, because it’s very neutral for transposing instruments, and also because ultimately it’s simple and Theseus is a simple character. People often try to attribute different emotions to different key signatures, which unless you genuinely have synesthesia for that sort of thing isn’t something I really buy into, but basically F is just a very solid and dependable key signature which is what I wanted for the play, because that’s what Theseus is meant to be as a character and so I tried to evoke that through his theme.
The chord sequence progresses in conjunct motion up the basic triads of the key in the first 4 bars, and it continues up the scale in the next 4 too up to the submediant D minor vi chord before going back to the Am - B flat that we see in the previous section. This first four chords of I-ii-iii-IV is a really simple progression - so simple, in fact, that it isn’t really that common in pop music, because it can seem a little bland. It’s the same as ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by the Cure and the verse to ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ by the Beatles, but I couldn’t really find any other good examples. The ‘B section’ of the next 4 bars is very closely linked to the first four, with the only difference being that the first two chords are shifted up a perfect fifth, where the tonal centre briefly changes to C through the C, Dm and Am chords before it returns to F for the Bb chord and any further repeats. The idea of these two separate sections is intended to also loosely show the two parts of Theseus’ journey that we see in the two acts of the show, with the first being him fighting the various challengers whilst still in his home territory, and the second being his time on Crete, which is similar in many ways and still feels familiar but there is also a distinct change in the atmosphere.
In the melody I used a bouncing idea to show the high energy of the character, but I gave the top line to the clarinet to show that he’s still smooth and can be gentle. The general melodic shape of the theme is meant to imitate a single hill - in that it ascends to begin with in the first four bars and then descends back down to the root note to also show his journey, but the theme finishes on the subdominant IV chord of B flat major, to loosely illustrate that his journey isn’t finished by not returning to the home chord. I also used a tonic pedal in both sections but have only included it in the A section here where the strings and saxes played staccato notes on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quavers of the bar to try and create a feeling of urging him on underneath the placidity of the clarinet.
Theme 2: Minos
Minos’ theme goes through a couple of different iterations in the show, as he is the only character to interact with the band directly. Due to this, I like to think the musicians as characters had a bit of a soft spot for him despite him being the clearest villain of the story, but you could also read it as him just being completely mental and the music just going on in his head. The variation of the theme I’ll be focusing on here is the final, definitive version that gets called dorian in the script, even though really it’s only in the harmonic minor, calling it dorian just ended up sounding better in the interaction.
Minos is the first character we are introduced to in the show, and as a king he naturally has a lot of gravitas to his person, so the obvious choice for his theme was a fanfare. We were lucky enough to have a great horn section in the band with alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet and trombone, so that lent itself very easily to this theme and is a main part of what makes it so powerful in the play. In the simplified score I’ve included two melody lines to highlight the trumpet and tenor sax on the top line and the clarinet and trombone on the bottom line, and I’ve left out the alto harmony part because you can probably extrapolate that quite easily from the chords if you really want.
The theme is in the relative minor to F, D minor, as Minos has a lot in common with Theseus, but the harmonic minor has a distinctly different flavour to it - basically to illustrate that he’s foreign, with Theseus as our hero meant to be endearing and familiar to the audience Minos is the other side of that coin. The theme is again built around the chord sequence, which has some quite interesting stuff going on with it - with the chromatic change of B flat to A in the second bar both melody lines outline a tritone between beats 1 and 2, and then the G major in bar 3 raises the 6th scale degree to a B natural, which gives the theme this sort of unsteadiness, because it isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be in the harmonic or natural minor scale, which is meant to sort of show the insecurity in Minos’ character underneath the hardy exterior he shows, due to the instability of his ruling etc. This one can also be easily divided into two distinct sections by bisecting the theme down the middle, where we can see a clear difference between the staccato, attacking opening that is very spiky and then the smoother slurred next two bars that are more calculated and scheming. The change in dynamics across a short period also shows his volatility as a character, with him quickly going from calm and collected to being unable to contain his anger.
Theme 3: Aegeus
Aegeus’ theme has a couple of things in common with Minos’ that we can immediately notice. From listening to it it becomes clear that it is definitely a fanfare - since he’s also a king - as it shares the same instrumentation and utilises accents and staccato marks to command attention; at its core the root of the piece is also D, because the two kings have the same motivations of protecting their kingdom / family; and it also is not in the most conventional of musical modes, with this one based around the scale of D mixolydian. This scale has far more in common with the basic major scale that Theseus’ theme is in than Minos’ does, but it is still noticeably different not least because of the different key centre.
The venn diagram below may show the interconnectedness between the three men better, but suffice to say that Aegeus and Minos are the two most impactful characters to Theseus’ journey, and so I tried to show that through their music.
In the simplified score I’ve only included the line I consider to be the ‘melody’ part, but all the instruments playing are together anyway so the chords should be enough.
Theme 4: Ariadne
Ariadne is of course the love interest, so her theme needed to have an air of romance to it, but she is also a character in her own right, so I tried to add a little bit more as well. The instrumentation is for string quartet, which does a lot of the heavy lifting already to give her some grace and elegance, and in the script when Minos ‘commissions’ the band for the piece, he says, “Play a theme for my daughter, band. Something gentle to match her dainty self.” By nature of it only being played by a small string section the theme is a lot quieter than those we’ve already looked at, because that’s who she has to be as a princess, and it’s also built around the key of D minor with a few chromatic embellishments to add some spice to it and give a similar sense of exoticism as her father Minos’ theme has. However, by the dominant v chord of A minor not sharing the sharpened seventh scale degree that is very prevalent in Minos’ theme, the harmonic texture of the theme is completely congruent with that of Theseus’ theme - both only use chords that can be built up out of notes found in the relative F major - which shows that under the surface she has a lot more in common with Theseus, hence why they end up together at the end of the show. Her theme is composed entirely of minor chords, which is also just to illustrate that she’s sad, basically.
Theme 5: Daedalus
The last character theme I’ll be covering here is Daedalus’, which was the most difficult to find something I liked for, so I just resorted to what all great composers for stage and screen do and ripped something from Holst’s The Planets. The melody line here is adapted from Venus, the Bringer of Peace, which you can see in the figure below - which isn’t to say that I think Daedalus really has much in common with Aphrodite as a character, but as far as classical music inspired by mythology goes it simply does not get better than Holst, so really there was no question about it.
Daedalus is probably the most nuanced character in the play, and certainly the one with the most going on in his head, so the theme uses far more extensions to the chords, and it also doesn’t really have a natural key centre - most of the chords don’t feel out of place in F major, but the E flat major 7 would be very out of place if you called it that, and it resolves to C major, but that doesn’t really feel like home. This is because Daedalus doesn’t really feel at home in Crete, and he doesn’t really have a great deal in common with any of the other characters. By using the saxophones to play the melody I intended to give him somewhat of a suaveness to his character, but that doesn’t really come across all the time because he is a scatterbrained guy who can’t always play it cool. The marcato articulations of the G’s in bars 1 and 2 are meant to symbolise him having ideas - like a lightbulb moment - but then he smooths it out, because he has to be careful around volatile Minos.
Other Pieces Used
Some other pieces we used in the play for extended periods were for the two main fight scenes, which were Saint-Saens’ ‘Danse Bacchanale’ from his opera of Samson and Delilah and ‘Fandango’ by Herb Alpert.
The first of these is a particular favourite piece of mine because I’m a big fan of Saint-Saens, and the music is meant to evoke a feeling of drunken revelry, which is a very sentiment very close to the heart of a lot of Alexandrians - not least when the scene includes a scripted point for me to go to the bar and get half of the band another pint. The fight which then ensues between Theseus and Cercyon is a personal highlight of the entire play as an avid encourager of slapstick, and also because I heavily abridged the piece to not make it 8 minutes long like most recordings of the original piece are it features quite a tricky transition out of the B section (with the ballroom dancing) back into the main melody where everyone in the band has pretty much given up counting their bars, so it took some outside of the box thinking to find a way to bring everyone back in at the same time which we solved as a group by me doing a big jump and making a loud stamp on the floor and I really enjoyed the power I felt from that as a conductor.
I chose Fandango because the second fight scene is when Theseus fights the bull of Marathon, and I thought the best way to do this was to stage it like a matador fight which meant it needed to be a piece with a distinctive Latin feel to it. You might be more familiar with Herb Alpert from his works with the Tijuana Brass, namely the songs ‘Ladyfingers’ and ‘Spanish Flea’, and he also has a great 1979 tune called ‘Rise’ that hilariously charted in the UK as a sped-up, nightcore-esque version because apparently radio DJs in Britain didn’t realise the record was recorded at 33rpm so they kept playing it at 45. Fandango felt like a good piece for the fight because I wanted to feature the trumpet in a mariachi style, but not to feel like it was mocking the musical style in any way because of the ludicrous nature of what was happening on the stage, so it felt right to pick a song that has a lot of influence from authentic mariachi music but was recorded by all American musicians.
For the bows I also adapted Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ just because it’s a great feel good tune and fun to play.
That’s all I got for now, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to find out. Thanks so much for reading! As I said at the beginning, there will be more blogs appearing here in the near future, so keep an eye on our instagram to find out about that. If you found this remotely interesting, I hope it persuades you to come along to our next play - Batrachomyomachia - or maybe even get involved in it! If you didn’t, I don’t know why you read this far, but come along as well anyway and let me know what I can do better next time. Happy Summer, and I hope to see you at an Alexandrians meeting next semester!
- Tobias Cooper
Alexandrian Society Secretary, 2023-24