Tom Strini

Composer Josh Schmidt, on “The Adding Machine”

By - May 19th, 2011 04:00 am
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Josh Schmidt was in Montreal when I first tried to catch up with him. When I did catch him, a couple of days later, he was in Houston creating the music and sound design for Pygmalion at the Alley Theater. Schmidt, a UWM music grad (BFA, 1999), splits what little down time he has between hometown Milwaukee and New York. Mostly, he’s traveling, working for one theater or another or arranging concerts of his music.

 

Josh Schmidt

Schmidt won’t get to Milwaukee for the Skylight Opera Theatre’s staging of his The Adding Machine until opening night (Friday, May 20). He’s fine with that. He trusts director Kate Buckley to get it right. Buckley is a friend and colleague from the Chicago theater community, where Schmidt is well entrenched.

The Adding Machine came to life in 2008 at Next Theater in Chicago. Jason Loewith, co-librettist with Schimidt, was artistic director of that company.

The composer also trusts the Skylight to get The Adding Machine, after Elmer Rice’s 1923 play, right.

“My first professional gigs happened at the Skylight,” Schmidt said. “I did a cabaret show in the Skylight bar with Ray Jivoff and Tony Clements. Monty Davis hired me for the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, too. My first theater sound design job was for Wings. I worked on 110 in the Shade, there, and March of the Falsettos. I cut my teeth in that building.”

Jivoff will play the key role of Mr. Zero in Adding Machine.

Small pit space and skinny budgets rule at the Skylight. Experience there shaped Schmidt’s mindset. He graduated from both UWM and the Skylight as a practical man of the theater. He set The Adding Machine for two pianos and percussion, a miniature orchestra that theater companies can afford.

“At Next Theatre, we had a 15-by-5 space for the orchestra — a shoebox with a very low ceiling,” Schmidt said. “My experience had taught me how to get a lot out of a little.

“I approached it with this combination in mind from the moment of conception. I didn’t cut it back to make it fit our space. I created a full blown, challenging score for three instruments. It’s not a matter of compensating for instruments that aren’t there.”

 

The Adding Machine succeeded in Chicago and went on to win great reviews, great box office and big awards Off Broadway in New York.

So Schmidt doesn’t grumble about limitations. The realities of the day require spareness and efficiency from everyone in the business.

“It’s part of the challenge of keeping the art form alive,” he said. “It’s about not bringing down the institutions financially. But when we reduce, we don’t sacrifice; we have to make sure that people don’t feel cheated.

The Adding Machine and then The Minister’s Wife reflect the values of the theaters that commissioned them. That mission is intimate musical theater in English.”

The Minister’s Wife, with a book by Austin Pendleton (after George Bernard Shaw’s Candida) and lyrics by Jan Tranen, opened at The Writer’s Theater, in Glenco, Ill., in May of 2009. It opened in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in New York on May 8 and has won spectacular notices.

The Minister’s Wife gives Schmidt two New York hits by age 35. But he’s not about to rest on his laurels and royalty checks just yet.

“The economic dictates of the day require you to be open to anything,” Schmidt said. “Any career at all these days is a lucky thing.”

The villain of “The Adding Machine.”

Schmidt has kept busy in Wisconsin, too. He wrote a remarkable brass score for Debra Loewen’s site-specific Wild Space Dance piece at the Lynden Sculpture Garden last fall. He wrote Gift of the Magi for American Players Theatre. He created the sound design for First Stage’s The Magic Bicycle this spring and did the same for the premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Ten Chimneys for the Arizona Theater Company. Ten Chimneys will open the Milwaukee Rep’s season next fall. All that comprises a fraction of his work in the last 18 months. Schmidt works hard and he works fast.

But this weekend, at least, he can take in The Adding Machine as a member of the audience.

The piece was among the earliest to question the impact of technology on human beings. The protagonist, Mr. Zero, is losing his job to a machine after 25 years of adding figures. Mr. Zero cracks under the strain, kills his boss, and is promptly caught and executed. The Expressionist play was among the first to use flashbacks. Rice veers into the fantastical; a good bit of it is set in Elysium, which looks good at first but turns out to be less than heavenly.

Schmidt noted that we’re now accustomed to musical that integrate songs into the story and lead into them gradually. That trend started years after Adding Machine premiered in 1923.

“There are always two questions in a musical,” Schmidt said. “Why are people singing? and What conventions allow them to sing? Well, this is coming out of vaudeville. In this show, people just sing.”

They sing in lots of different styles, too. Some of the music sounds modern. There’s gospel, blues, and some vintage-sounding show tunes.

“Rice wrote each scene a little differently, so I wrote the themes for each the seven scenes in a different way,” Schmidt said. “During a confession of love in Elysium, I had to figure out how to write If I Loved You without writing If I Loved You.”

Rice was a troubled, volatile, political man, and something of a radical. He condemned modern commerce as inhumane and satirized it in The Adding Machine. Schmidt and Loewith shifted its focus a little.

“It’s still dark and acerbic, an intense experience rooted in reality,” Schmidt said. “But it’s less about man versus machine. It’s sort of a romantic black comedy.”

The Skylight Opera Theater will give the local premiere of Adding Machine at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The musical will run in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Centre, 158 N. Broadway, through June 12. Tickets are $24-$63.50. Click on the link or call the BTC box office, 414 291-7800.

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