Tom Strini
American Players Theatre

Music by John Tanner

Milwaukee composer's music sets the moods for "Molly Sweeney" and "Too Many Husbands" at APT in Spring Green.

By - Jun 10th, 2013 04:00 am
John Tanner and harpist Kim Roberson.

John Tanner and harpist Kim Roberson.

The first official sounds the audience heard June 1, when the American Players Theatre opened its season, were not lines from Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney. Before an actor spoke, John Tanner’s music set the stage.

I caught up with Tanner May 29, as he put the finishing touches on his scores for Molly Sweeney and for Somerset Maugham’s Too Many Husbands.

“Do you want the tinkly harp sound, or the misty, swirly thing?” asked harpist Kim Roberson. Roberson’s voice came from beyond a studio wall, via the sound system, to Tanner, who sat before two computer monitors, a keyboard and a mixing board. Tanner, who has music credits for many shows at the Milwaukee Rep and for an endless list of TV commercials, did not merely write the notes and send them off to someone else to perform and record.

He is a principal in Tanner Monagle, a professional recording studio in a vast space in the old Blatz complex in Downtown Milwaukee. Tanner booked the musicians, recorded and mixed the entire score himself. He handed APT complete recordings to run with the two plays.


John Tanner, on the other side of the glass from Kim Roberson at the Tanner Monagle studio.

During my visit, he was recording the harp part and adding it to already complete fiddle, guitar, bodhran “and maybe spoons” for this Irish play about a blind woman facing surgery to restore her sight. Tanner and his musicians are all used to changing things up on the fly. As he and Roberson worked through multiple takes, they played them back with the other parts and made some decisions.

“It needs something more there,” Tanner said, after hearing a take. “Could you just arpeggiate those chords?” Later, they decided to leave out the third and just play the open fifth, so as to leave the mood more neutral than either major or minor.

[audio:|titles=Sample from “Molly Sweeney”]

Though Tanner’s physical presence is not really required in Spring Green, he composed most of the music on site on the theater grounds, located in a hilly forest outside the hamlet west of Madison. Getting away from the normal business of running a recording studio allowed him to focus. Spring Green is quiet in the early spring.

“I spent 10 days there just writing,” Tanner said. “I got to know the plays inside and out. I sent each piece [as a MIDI file] to each director step by step as I composed them.”

The directors are Kenneth Albers (Molly Sweeney) and David Frank (Too Many Husbands), APT’s producing artistic director.

Tanner knows Albers well. Albers was a core member of the Milwaukee Rep for years, and for 10 years directed the company’s annual A Christmas Carol. Tanner wrote the music and led the live orchestra throughout that run. Frank and APT have employed Tanner often over the years.

“Usually, I do one show a year out there,” Tanner said. “This year, it’s two.”

APT will stage Molly Sweeney in the intimate, indoor Touchstone Theatre. Maugham’s 1919 comedy will run outdoors at the Up the Hill Theatre.

Maugham’s play is something of a reaction to the gloomy aftermath of World War I. Instead of a play about a soldier who doesn’t return from the war, he wrote about a husband who does return after being reported dead — and after his wife has married his best friend. Romantic hijinks ensue.

“I thought it would be great to write songs in period style,” Tanner said, and he did, seven of them, complete with lyrics. They’re not all alike.

“In 1920, everything changed,” Tanner said. Before then, no jazz. After that, everything’s jazz.

[audio:|titles=”What Will That Girl Do?” from “Too Many Husbands”]

The music for Too Many Husbands contrasts sharply with the Celtic-flavored music for Molly Sweeney; it’s hard to imagine that the same person wrote both. But that’s the point.

“Audiences come to shows with expectations,” Tanner said. “They want to pigeonhole characters and plays. My job is to build a bridge between those expectations and who and what the characters and the plays actually are. In that introductory music, the first thing the audience hears, I want to take them where we want them to be so they can see who the characters really are.”

Tickets and Further Information: Molly Sweeney and Too Many Husbands are among nine plays APT will mount through Oct. 20. For a complete schedule and to purchase tickets, visit the American Players Theatre website or call the box office, 608 588-2361.

Categories: Music, Theater

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