The Twin Cities are home to many artists who have busy careers that take them all over the globe. Composer Robert Elhai is one such artist who is near and dear to my heart. Robert regularly works in theatre and film in NYC, LA, and London, as well as right here at home with local theatres and our world-class Minnesota Orchestra. He has orchestrated film scores for over 150 movies and worked on projects that have won all sorts of major awards: The Lion King, orchestrator (Tony for Best Musical, nomination, Best Orchestrations), Frida, orchestrator (Oscar, Best Musical, Film Score) and Grammy, Emmy, and Annie awards. I personally know him as a collaborator and busy, celebrated composer in the Twin Cities theatre scene. I love sitting with him over coffee and asking him about his work life, and asked him if I could share one of our conversations with you.
Laurie Flanigan Hegge: With a career that takes you all over, how did you come to live in the Twin Cities, and how do you make it work?
Robert Elhai: The same way it seems everybody does: I married someone who is from here. The work I do in the Twin Cities is primarily composition and orchestration for theatre, as film scores are not recorded here (they’re done in LA/London/NY). I also compose and orchestrate for orchestras. I made a couple of really good connections when I was living in NYC, and those connections led to other work without my having to live in in LA.
LFH: What are the similarities and differences in your approach when orchestrating a film or writing a theatrical score?
RE: A lot of the process is the same. When I’m orchestrating something, I approach it as a composer would, and when I’m composing, I think about what it’s going to be scored for instrumentally, but I orchestrate separately. When I write an instrumental concert piece—even a film score—I conceive and write for the whole ensemble. For example, if I’m writing a brass trio, I’ll write three parts. I won’t just write music and split it into three parts. Writing for the theatre, I tend to focus on the voice and get much less specific about what’s going on instrumentally until I’m at that point the writing process. I think a lot of opera composers wrote the same way—creating a piano/vocal score, and then going back to orchestrate it. When you’re writing music for the voice, some kind of piano score has to be produced, so that’s part of the issue. For me, the work I do in film and theatre is similar in that they both support character and narrative. I’m writing and orchestrating in support of something that is concrete as apposed too being abstract. Even if I’m writing for an abstract film, I’m still supporting the images in a concrete way—always writing music to a reference. I’m not just writing it based on purely musical ideas, I’m writing based on visual ideas or narrative ideas.
LFH: What are the differences/upsides/downsides of working in different-sized markets?
RE: I love how collaborative the work is in the Twin Cities. We have world-class talent, but there’s no star treatment—everyone is very down-to-earth. The bench may not be as deep as in New York, but there is great work being done here. The TC has fantastic community of collaborative artists and theatres that nurture them. [Robert has had work developed and produced at Nautilus Music-Theater, Theatre Latté Da, The Jungle Theater, History Theatre, and The Minnesota Fringe Festival, among others.] The quality of life is such that I can own a beautiful old house in an urban residential neighborhood close to all manner of amenities and send my kids to good public schools. The limitations I encounter have to do with budgetary restraints, which translate into instrumental restraints. When it comes to theatre, I can’t write a show for more than four-five musicians, which can be frustrating but also gloriously restrictive. Lion King on Broadway had an orchestra of 23, and in film or symphonic work, I often write for orchestras of 70-100. It’s also a reality that from a national standpoint, compared to the work I’ve done in New York, or film work (which has the potential to play across the country in multiple theatres several times a day), not much attention is paid to the work I’m doing in the Twin Cities. But I find value working in a smaller market with smaller companies. It becomes much more about the art and less about commerce, and that is gratifying.
LFH: What advice do you have for a composer starting out?
RE: If you want to write for the theatre: write. Go to college, hook up with a lyricist and write musicals. You’ll have more time than you’ll ever have in your life with people who are willing to make it happen, and you’ll learn not just from writing but from having your things on stage in production in front of an audience.