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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Hear, hear! Incidental music in plays

'A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon."

Those are the first words Arthur Miller wrote in his stage directions for "Death of a Salesman," the 1949 masterwork that changed Miller's life and the theater forever. How fascinating that this sound -- not the Loman family house or the exhausted Willy lugging his sample cases -- was the first thing Miller wanted our senses to notice.

The music Miller and director Elia Kazan ended up using for their iconic production is by Alex North, a classically trained composer who went on to write the incidental music for Kazan's movie version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and dozens of other film scores.

I mention this because, for starters, director Mike Nichols has brought back North's haunting music for the wrenching, powerfully inhabited revival of "Death of a Salesman" now on Broadway starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In fact, composers of incidental music have suddenly taken on a high profile, even a starring role in plays around town. Earlier in the Broadway season that officially ended April 26, pop singer-songwriter Alicia Keys had her name above the title of "Stick Fly," both as a co-producer and as the composer of music heard between the scenes of Lydia R. Diamond's upper-class black family drama.

For the current multicultural revival of "Streetcar," starring Blair Underwood as Stanley, New Orleans jazz giant Terence Blanchard was commissioned to write the music -- which even insinuates its bittersweet, joyous atmosphere into an interpolated funeral dance.

Next month, the music of Steve Martin -- yes, that Steve Martin -- will be heard in "As You Like It," which opens the Public Theater's 50th-anniversary season of free Shakespeare in Central Park. And Bobby McFerrin has written the music for the revival of "My Children! My Africa!" -- Athol Fugard's powerfully prescient 1989 drama written during the twilight of apartheid. It is in previews for a May 24 opening at the Signature Theatre Company.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson calls McFerrin's contribution a "soundscape," not just incidental music. "It's another character in the play," he told me in a phone interview last week. With few exceptions, he says, "every sound is him -- every hum, every bird, every click."

Incidental music also became news when the Tony nominations were announced last week. Pickings for best original score were so slim that two of the four nominations went to music in plays, not musicals. The songs in "Once" were first written for the movie version, and thus ineligible. The Gershwins weren't exactly backstage for the creation of the new-old '20s musical, "Nice Work If You Can Get It." The scores for "Ghost," "Leap of Faith," "Lysistrata Jones" and, take that, Bono, "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark" were understandably deemed beneath consideration.

So, in addition to "Newsies" and the short-lived "Bonnie and Clyde," the category has been stretched way out of shape to include the underscoring for "Peter and the Starcatcher" and the mock-early Beatles quartet, The Craze, which plays jaunty skiffle in front of the curtain during scene changes of "One Man, Two Guvnors."

Of course, incidental music for plays is hardly a new topic. It is one of the oldest uses for music in theater history. The Greeks did it, medieval plays had it and literally countless composers have done it for Shakespeare -- from the Renaissance to just about every production in Central Park.

Not everyone who marches down the wedding aisle to "Here Comes the Bride" realizes that Mendelssohn wrote that for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Beethoven composed music for Goethe's "Egmont," and Grieg is all over Ibsen's "Peer Gynt."

Until our current pop infusion, however, the music in plays was composed by so-called classical musicians -- in other words, the pop composers of their day.

Music in plays can set historical periods, support characters, vamp between scenes and, these days, bring in audiences. Santiago-Hudson, who co-starred in "Stick Fly" before directing the upcoming Fugard, remembers that Keys "came into the rehearsal room and studied the styles of the actors, their voices, their tempos."

Although I found her music intrusive and damaging to the momentum of the action, Santiago-Hudson insists that she talked about being "inside the play, never outside of it." Of course, this was her first theatrical work. And there is little doubt that her celebrity made it possible for this diffuse but rich drama to be seen on Broadway.

Collaboration seems to vary with the project. Santiago-Hudson sent the script of "My Children! My Africa!" to McFerrin while he was in Berlin. "He said, 'I've got to be a part of this,' " the director recalls fondly, " 'Tell me what you need.' "

Santiago-Hudson considered using South African music, but says, "I wanted to go with things we all hadn't heard. Bobby McFerrin has been all over the world, picking up all the sounds of the world. His ear and his heart take you there."

McFerrin recorded 61 pieces, from which eight are used in their entirety. Most of the rest is integrated throughout the production. "He had flown in from somewhere, I think China, and went into the studio exhausted with flu," the director says. "He was so worn out. But so was Africa at that time, so tired of what was going on. Instead of using the prettiest sounds, we start with the most worn-out ones."

How I would've loved to have been at Kazan's house when North first met Miller. According to a 2003 Miller biography by Sanya Henderson, North played what he had written at the piano. Miller said, "It was the first time in my experience that I heard of a symphonic approach to the theater. In other words, each of the main characters had a theme as they would in a symphony, and these themes were combined."

North later explained, "I was anxious to write music for Willy that emphasized the human values which lay beneath his surface behavior." In addition to Miller's original flute, North added cello, trumpet and clarinet. Miller inscribed North's copy of the script, "To Alex North and all his blessed flutes and clarinets that turned our Willy's dream into music."

Miller said, "You can't separate the music from the play or the play from the music." Too bad the score couldn't get Tony-nominated this year, when we really need it.

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