Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Evolving Leitmotifs

Character themes can evolve along with their characters.


We've talked about character leitmotifs before. If you can create a snippet of a theme for a character, and recall and use it during a show, you can colour the character and the audience's bonding with that character immensely. Although you can pull this off in a short-form game to a limited extent, this really comes in to its own for long-form shows, where characters can establish themselves and really evolve as the show progresses.

A terribly nice thing to do is take a theme you've established, and fiddle with it to reflect the underlying emotion of the character or the scene. You want to put something together that listeners will cue in to, but that you can vary as the scene requires... or better, to develop further as the character matures.

The gold standard in my opinion is John Williams' soundtrack to the Star Wars movies. When you watch the movies, without meaning to, you latch on to those musical elements, starting to form associations with characters or environmental elements. Once you're hooked, that music can come back and layer particular emotions on to a scene, reaching in to affect you every bit as much as the acting and dialogue.

Prognosis: Death

Back in June, we presented a set of character themes for characters from Impro Mafia's series of long form science fiction supernatural medical drama soap opera, Prognosis: Death!. Because of the nature of the show, themes for characters developed as the opening season progressed, something you generally can't get away with in a one-scene or one-night story. In mid-2009, we ran our second season of the show, Prognosis: Death! Relapse, where I shared music duties with the incredibly talented Nathan Howard. In Relapse, many of the characters evolved, either through changes in their story, or as aspects of their characters were revealed.

I have a problem when it comes to long-form impro and stories. I totally buy them. I totally get in to the characters, I believe their stories. I love to see them develop. Really, I take the whole thing a bit too seriously. This show in particular seems to work very well; the characters have such good chemistry, the dynamic is great, and the actors are all highly skilled and very good at what they do. So I end up really bonding with the characters. (I'm not the only one. One of the fans of the show will be away for the first two episodes of our upcoming season. She's asked us to film the shows - because she needs to know what happens. Does she know we're making it up? Yes! Does that diminish her need to savour every minute? No!)

A few folks encouraged me to write a Prognosis: Death! Relapseseason 2 medley (thanks Ben!), and I resisted for a while... But knowing how the characters had evolved, it seemed pretty natural to evolve their themes to reflect how they changed during Relapse.


The themes from season 1 were pretty straightforward, setting up a musical phrase or two for each of the characters. Season 2 themes usually demonstrated a dynamic in the character that came out during the show. In most cases, they show an example of taking a set leitmotif and bending it around a different emotion or experience, hopefully sounding familiar enough to the listener while evoking something new. Here's an explanation of the themes, and what I was trying to achieve with each of them.

You know what? These make more sense if you watch this recap of season 2, set to the season 2 medley.

Nurse Lotte Buble: Buble's core theme is meant to be stoic; when she suffers a setback, she soldiers on. At the beginning of Relapse, Doctor Burton Mangold stood her up at the altar, which left her terribly sad. The opening bars are supposed to evoke a feeling of numbness, of running on autopilot and not really being all there, at least for a while.

Doctor Burton Mangold: After disappearing from the town for several months, he skulked around the hospital in disguise, until the moment when he was needed. His theme begins with a sad snippet of his old theme, before launching in to hero-mode again (this time with an added sprinkling of hero-mode trills).

Reverend Jeremy Thistlewaite: As is his custom, Thistlewaite died a lot this season, being replaced by an endless variety of Thistlewaites from other backgrounds and religions, sent by some central church. His theme starts with his positive facade, degenerating into a death march. In a weird case of life imitating art, Wade Robinson (who plays Thistlewaite) was struck down by the flu (a garden-variety kind) and was unable to perform in one of the shows. His spot in the usual cast was replaced with...

Reverend Casanova Lovechild: Lovechild was sent from St Love's "Latin Quarter" to help the hospital out in their hour of need. He is a terribly attractive, magnetic, somewhat sleazy man who makes all the staff (male and female) nervously giddy. This is Lovechild's first appearance on the show.

Medical Superintendent Harold Dean: Dean was a revelation in Relapse. I'd completely misread his character in Season 1. I'd taken him to be the scowling, stomping, penny-pinching, bureaucratic bad guy in the hospital, Mangold's nemesis. In Season 2 we realised that he was just an idiot, someone who bumbles along and doesn't really understand how to relate to other people. His music stumped me for a while, but it became a Prince Nez-version of his old theme. You can hear his old theme in there, hopefully reduced to ineffectual bumbling.

Doctor Ludwig LeStrange: LeStrange's music was a little more flowy this time, not as mechanical. He broke out with more emotion this season, even growing a backbone and turning in to a superhero in one of the shows. But he always seems to return to his introverted "normal" self, hiding away in the mortuary.

Doctor Melody Carmichael: Melody's music retains her original themes of youth and positivity. This season she rose to the role of Best Damn Doctor while Mangold was away, and later found love (one-sided as it was) with LeStrange. She went through a lot this season, experiencing love and loss. Her music evolved, hopefully showing a little more maturity and a few more scars.

Mayor Rik Cocksteady: Cocksteady appeared for one episode in season one as the only doctor better than Burton Mangold. In season two, he returned in the last show of the season as the new Mayor of St Love. He was later revealed to be behind an evil operation to take over the town and knock down the hospital to get to the secret Mayan gold buried beneath it. He is smart, manipulative, and greedy.

End theme: Right in the closing seconds of the last show of the season, just as Mangold and Buble are about to be married, a stranger bursts in to interrupt the wedding. A stranger? Or is it... The season ended with a sudden cliffhanger.

Prognosis: Death! Pandemic

Prognosis: Death! returns for a third season at the Brisbane Arts Theatre in 2010 on January 21, 22, 23 and 28, 29, 30. For all the details, visit ImproMafia, or book online.

Hopefully in season 3, the music will continue to evolve. I can't wait to see where the characters go.

Prognosis Death (or Prog Death as we like to call it) is a wonderful show, and I hope to see you there.

Photo by Wanda Anderson. That's right, my wife. She's awesome.

Video photography by Al Caeiro, Anthony Massingham, Wanda Anderson and Kris Anderson.

Prognosis: Death! poster by Dan Beeston.


Girl Clumsy said...

Hey Kris!

A splendid job by you on sound and Wanda on photos duty. ;)

It's amazing how key the music of Prognosis: Death! has become integral to the show's success. As you say, I can't think of the show without humming various themes and melodies.

I'm so glad you "buy" into the characters - don't tell anyone, but I do too!

Wanda said...

Now I understand why you've been bugging me to catch up on my Musical Hotspot readings... :-). Thanks sweetie!

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