Even though Elmer Bernstein is readily recognizable for his incredible ability for capturing the subtleties of human vulnerabilities – his tender themes, particularly the title work for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), are excruciatingly beautiful – it’s still extraordinary how much music Bernstein wrote for other venues.
Documentaries (Making of the President 1960), Charles and Ray Eames shorts (see HERE and HERE), animated films, indie films, Hollywood flicks, and a few stage productions form part of his huge C.V., but Laurette (1960) is one of those gems that very few people have heard of, largely because the play came and went very fast, and it wasn’t a particularly happy experience for the composer as well as the cast and crew.
Directed by Jose Quintero (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone), produced by future Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan, and starring Judy Holiday as actress Laurette Taylor, the play never reached Broadway, but a promo LP was issued at the time. In an October 2000 interview (see the Editor’s Blog at end), Bernstein said he still retained the original tapes which had been largely forgotten because they were simply part of endeavours that preceded Bernstein’s busiest and most prolific period – the early to mid-sixties.
Laurette is significant because its tone and delicate theme arrangements are very similar to Mockingbird; it’s not an early draft of that score, though, because even his music for the Eames film (like the IBM shorts from the seventies) shares some similar instrumentations, as well as the composer’s recognizable see-saw harmonics.
The “Overture” begins with shifting harmonies with woodwinds, accordion, and piano, and near the end there’s some marimba hits before the addition of strings, and the cue has that recognizable hook Bernstein uses to grab audiences – a warm tonal undercurrent that always seems to stay smack in the middle of sadness and joy, and only tilts to one side when, in Laurette, Bernstein changes the angle of his 7-note theme and variations.
Most of the play’s cues are very, very short, but they form a compact statement on a troubled character (and perhaps the internal issues of the production). “Rehearsal” is a stripped down theme variation with a short carnivalesque intro, whereas “Hartley” is a beautiful free-form version with harmonies evoking a bit of Americana.
What’s notable about this cue – and typical of the score - is the precision of Bernstein’s instrumentations. He doesn’t stick with a handful of instruments and has them play variations; he creates specific colours with different groups within singular cues. If the composer’s big budget scores serve as examples of robust emotions exploited within jazz (Man with the Golden Arm) and western (The Magnificent Seven) idioms, for example, then his small-scale scores are textbook examples on how to be dramatically precise within a shorter time-span.
It’s highly unlikely most of the Laurette cues played over dialogue scenes, but aside from more functional cues like “Curtain Act 1” and the strategically optimistic “Final Curtain,” they go beyond short theme bits to keep the audience attentive during scene changes. Bernstein must have known the music had a duty to sum up any important conflicts of an ending scene and get audiences ready for the next, but it’s also likely he knew, just as in his film work, that the establishment of a theme and its recurrence would also help the audience reflect on the characters – like a slow fade-out and fade-in, to let things resonate.
The score’s dramatic strength is one of its charms, but there are also some lovely touches that the initial listen might miss, such as a trio of notes in “Hartley” that Bernstein uses to infer (most likely) a moment of tenderness, painful love, or some long, locked up vulnerability. Although it’s probably played on a string instrument, the specific tones and playing have an electronic shimmer and hum that’s rather hypnotic.
The Laurette theme is also heard as a waltz, notably in the charming “The Beach.” The score’s longest cue (2:58), this cyclical source piece has very simple ornamentations that ensures it doesn’t evoke a scale or grandeur unsuitable to the pay. The first bars are also illustrative of Bernstein’s use of warm harmonies, and specific chords always remain within a realm of severe bittersweetness. The gentility of “Phone Call” is just as powerful, and it’s a delicate theme variation with intertwining woodwinds.
The solo piano waltz “Pantomime” is admittedly striking because it begins with a formal intro, but drifts off twice into a contemporary classical-jazz improv section that’s very reminiscent of Golden Arm. The scattering of notes was perhaps meant to refocus the audience’s attention from a scene’s drama to a character’s reaction, but it’s the performance – the way the notes drift almost aimlessly – that infers a terrible vulnerability.
Bernstein also knew continuity would add strength to a scene, so it’s no surprise “Hartley’s Death” begins with a solo piano, albeit in a more thematically organized form. It’s also played as a waltz, but has the texture of a music box – child-like, with shimmering electronic tones in the background. It’s the score's second-longest cue (2:41), and flows between the music box theme and chamber orchestra, with pulsing brass over which clarinet plays a delicate theme fragment.
“Final Curtain” doesn’t necessarily give the audience closure, but an initial return to the score’s opening theme rendition boosts the listener's mood after the sadness of the last scenes. Bernstein’s return to the see-saw motif here is much darker, though, and it closes the score with tones that (perhaps) were meant to provoke audiences during their exit walk with some personal reflection on the characters.
Prince Jack (1985)
As CD producer Bruce Kimmel explains in his liner notes, Prince Jack (1985), the album’s second score, was written for a filmed play set in 1960, but Prince Jack has less to do with Laurette and is arguably a revisitation of sorts to Mel Stuart’s Making of the President 1960, a 1963 documentary based on Theodore H. White’s same-titled book about the 1960 presidential race leading up to John F. Kennedy’s victory. Bernstein’s Emmy-winning score was released as a double-LP set from UA (in mono, and bullshit stereo), but that set is a literal dump from the film’s mixed mono track with dialogue, narration, and sound effects, making it impossible to really get a sampling of the music.
The Prince Jack score is comprised of seven untitled cues (save for the title track), runs just twelve minutes, and is far more dramatic than Laurette, as well as Bernstein’s Eames films (specifically the 1976 bicentennial shorts). Using a small orchestra of twenty-five musicians, the tone is formal and sincere, and towards the end,it gives way to some urgency, which Bernstein follows by emphasizing more brass.
“Cue Five,” for example, builds like a traditional suspense fugue. Layers of instruments are added onto a marching 4/4 rhythm, bowed slow and steady by string bass. With near-shrilling flutes and pulsing low brass, the piece culminates in the middle with an eerie brass peak before a gradual slow-down, with low brass and piano, and subtle percussion hits.
That cue has some seriously retro aspects (quite reminiscent of a bug-eyed monster movie), and Bernstein also makes use of the Ondes Martinot. (Bernstein’s eighties scores were sometimes a bit too ripe with the instrument’s patented woo-woo delivery, and it’s a bit puzzling why he warmed up so much to a sound that was so heavily rooted in clichéd sci-fi and psychological thrillers. He did give it more credence and showed its versatility in wholly different genres, but certainly to the generations that grew up on cheesy B-movies, that woo-woo sound will always conjure up very different associations.)
“Cue 19” also has some roots in Bernstein’s own sci-fi efforts, even though its intention is obviously tied to the film’s presidential story. After a gentle set of intro bars with mingling flutes and soothing clarinet, the cue quickly shifts to the score’s formal march, which is overcome by a suspenseful motif the composer used quite heavily in Saturn 3 (1980): wood block and tympani hits accented by faltering notes on flutes that collectively mimic a ticking clock with a doom-laden deadline. The motif is overtaken by urgent brass, after which it unwinds and fades out after a sustained synth chord.
Even the Ondes Martinot evokes a bit of Heavy Metal’s “Taarna Theme” (aka Saturn 3’s rejected secondary theme) when Bernstein uses the instrument to close the score, but the final cue is just a fragment of the Prince Jack theme, ending the score and album on a very quiet mood.
Of the two scores on this CD, Laurette is the most pleasing because it shows off the quiet, introspective writing that Bernstein would soon apply to films involving adults – notably Walk on the Wild Side’s emotionally battered creatures – and kids being brazenly frank in their curiosity in spite of adult finger-waving, such as Mockingbird, and The World of Henry Orient (1964).
It’s a pity the album runs just a hair over 29 mins., but it marks the first time two very rare scores are finally available in the commercial realm.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan