All posts by joseph

I grew up as a pretty typical middle class 1950’s American kid. It was George Reeves’ Superman, The Lone Ranger and “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” all the way.

In my circles it was always real important to be a ‘regular guy’. I’m not sure I can tell you everything that a ‘regular guy’ had to be in the 1950’s but I can tell you one thing he was not. A ‘regular guy’ was not an egghead. For those of you not familiar with that quaint term here is an example. In the comic strips an egghead was usually drawn as a character carrying around a very fat volume of War and Peace.

Right, War and Peace was considered intellectual, cultured, serious. Sorry Tolstoy but we’re into Yankees, Chevys, Disney’s and Larry ‘n Curly ‘n Moe.

So it’s not surprising that I was unfamiliar with Shakespeare. The first play I suffered through was The Merchant of Venice when my sophomore class had to read it aloud. We understood maybe every fifth word and it was a great relief to close that book and get back to some good ol’ regular entertainment like Ozzie and Harriet.

Okay, let’s fast forward to 1965. It’s my senior year in high school. I was in a band and we played Surf Music, Beatles and R&B covers, the real R&B that is. Classical music? Well my mom had some Strauss waltz records and I had liked them a lot when I was a kid, but that had been a long time ago. Oh, I had also seen little Jinny Tiu play Chopin’s Minute Waltz several times on the Ed Sullivan Show. I’d assumed it was the only tune she knew.

Okay, back to high school. It’s third period art class and we’re finishing up some project or other. Maybe it had something to do with the project we were working on (who remembers?) but our teacher took out a record and put it on the turntable.

The needle dropped.                         Poof.                         The room disappeared and I vanished along with it. I’m sure I had to have been breathing but I can’t swear to it. When the room and I re-appeared the class was staring at me. I was standing there like a big dummy with tears cascading down my cheeks.

I had been hit over the head with “The Willow Song” from Verdi’s Otello.

I guess I was no longer a ‘regular guy’.

For those of you who have already asked, future posts will eventually include Sweet Willow’s script, music demos and video.

  • Kiri Te Kanawa as Desdemona at the Covent Garden performs the Willow Song, from Verdi’s Otello in 1983, with Placido Domingo conducted by Sir George Solti before Lady Di and Prince Charles.

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Have to ‘fess up here. I wasn’t completely honest in that first chapter.

The classroom and I didn’t really disappear but you probably already figured that out.

There’s also that last sentence, the one that goes, “I guessed I was no longer a regular guy.” That one. Well, truth be told I had never been a regular guy.

Dad was in the military, we moved a lot and I was often the new kid in school, an Outsider. How did this impact me? Well, I got to make up and live in my own worlds and I enjoyed all that very much thank you. Oh I wanted to be a regular guy for a long time to be sure, that is until I finally figured out that maybe being a regular guy wasn’t so wonderful. Okay, that’s out of the way, time to move on.

On to college. Music was definitely what I wanted to be studying and our local college was a very good place to be doing that. Dave Brubeck’s brother Howard was the theory teacher there. He inspired me to major in music.

However, I had some subversive friends up in the drama department who talked me into coming up to join the party.

I found out that actors were a whole lot more fun to hang out with than musicians and…, even though I wasn’t good at the drama stuff I managed to get cast as Kent in the school’s production of King Lear. ( I’m now a reguLear guy. Get it?)

Shakespeare was beginning to feel like an old friend. Still, Othello would be another year away and in another University.

Okay. Another fast forward. Whoosh, a year has gone by and I have transferred to San Francisco State. I’m still a music major but it is here that I see my first production of Othello.

Sidebar: Man, were the 60’s ever a great time to be in San Francisco! (Like man, like groovy, yeah way cool)

I honestly can’t recall a damned thing about that play except I thought the actor who played Iago was very good. Actually, considering my level of theatre acumen at the time combined with the culture of the period, it’s possible he was a ham and I made an assumption.

Still, I remembered something. The name Iago for a start and that he was a right bastard. It must be a great role to play, eh?

In my mind the thought of Othello was now simmering somewhere. We never know when these back burner stews will, or ever jump out to feed us do we?

I promise, this narrative will get to Sweet Willow soon. Be patient. Some music will come soon too.

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Here I am going to skip an entire decade, the 1970’s. I can imagine there may be a lot of people who would like to skip the 1970’s but maybe for other reasons.

Throughout most of that ten year period I was living in Britain where I met my lovely wife to be. I also spent a day with George Harrison and became friendly with Arthur Brown. Yes, the Arthur Brown of the Crazy World and Fire.

(Don’t you hate name droppers? Okay, I’ll stop now.)

For a number of reasons I eventually became tired of pop music and lay down my guitar to learn how to compose ‘serious contemporary concert music’.

So, let’s skip all that.

You never know where saying “yes” to something will get you. We have now leap-frogged to the mid 1980’s and I am living in Boise, Idaho. A local theatre director asked me to be musical director and conductor for a production of Sweeney Todd. “Sweeney who?” I replied.

(Actually I knew who the dude was I just didn’t know it was a piece of musical theater since I hated musicals and did everything I could do to avoid them.)

She finally wore me down.  I agreed and ended up having a pretty good time. The end of this little tale is that the artistic director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival attended and apparently impressed with my efforts, hired me to score the next season of plays. It turned into a six year gig.

Guess what one of the plays that first year was? If you’re you thinking Othello you’d be right.

Unfortunately none of the Othello music got saved but since it’s high time to share some music with you, I’ll post some excerpts from other shows.

First, here is an overture for a production of Macbeth. This show was set in some contemporary South or Central American country with Macbeth portrayed as  a military dictator. Obviously a revolution has to take place and the ancient indian culture provides the supernatural magic.

Next is part of an overture to Troillus and Cressida. This show had glam-rock spandex clad Trojans fighting the denim clad biker-gang Greeks.

Last is music for a crazy chase scene from strange, cartoon-like, Arabic-Commedia dell’arte version of The Comedy of Errors. Very goofy but fun.

In the next post we will finally arrive at the beginning of Sweet Willow.

The music on this page was never intended to last longer than the run of the production. It was all quickly recorded under the guns of deadlines back in the stone-age of audio tape, some of it of medium to low quality. Unfortunately some degradation had occurred prior to transferral to a digital format.

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We are now arriving at the beginning of Sweet Willow although at this point the show had no name.

It is 1991 and it is the last year I worked with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

The season was a disaster.

The Artistic Director had either been fired or quit (can’t remember which) and no one was running the festival. Somehow the plays got rehearsed and up but it still feels like a miracle that anything got staged that year. One of the shows got shut down due to full frontal male nudity.

Can you imagine full frontal male nudity on an outdoor stage in Boise, Idaho?

The production in question was Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. I thought it was a good show and was pleased with the music I had composed for it but local church groups and a young Republican firebrand Attorney General made sure we awakened nowhere no-how. Like I said the season was a disaster.

I was now living in Seattle and commuting to Boise for the festival. The night before I was due to return home I couldn’t sleep.

A sound kept running through my head.

It was the sound of the baritone saxophone. I  was hearing some of those great old R&B horn lines playing and replaying in my mind’s ear over and over and over and…you get the idea. The next logical step for me was to think, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to write something that used a baritone sax?”

What could it be? What could it be?

A song? No.

A play? Well, I’ve never written a play but heck, why let that stop you? Okay, a play but what should it be? Shakespeare? Hmmm, maybe.

I began to mentally audition Shakespearean plays that might have musical possibilities. Romeo and Juliet had already been turned into West Side Story, The Comedy of Errors was The Boys from Syracuse, The Taming of the Shrew was Kiss Me Kate. There’s actually quite a list of them. I was sure that the musical genre I wanted to explore was in the blues/jazz, R&B camp.

You know…, baritone saxophone.

What could translate to a gritty, urban blues powered story?

‘Ding’, the bell rang, the light bulb went on and Othello jumped into the ring. Yes, he literally jumped into the ring because I knew instantly that he had to be a boxer.

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All right, some of the pieces for this puzzle had fallen into place. I knew that the show was to be based on Othello, I knew when in time it would take place, I knew the musical genre and I knew the type of world I wanted to portray.

I was pretty excited about this.

I have a good friend in LA who works in film and TV and I wanted to share this news with him. To my great surprise he said, “Come down to LA and we’ll put a screenplay together.”

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It was still 1991, I’d only just thought of the project a month previously and here someone, a someone who’s a friend and who also happens to be a little bit connected, is interested enough to take the time to help write a screenplay with me. What good fortune.

My fantasy wheels began to spin over-time. I became ‘concerned’ that some big shot celebrity that I didn’t care for would want to be in this great movie. Ha!

How would I negotiate a contract that would leave me with some control? Another big Ha!

What would I wear when I went up to receive my Oscar? Ha, ha, ha, ho, ho ho!

As yet there was no script, no songs nor any music beginning to percolate.

What did I have? Hmm…,I had a hazy idea of a something based on Othello and the sound of the baritone sax and I wasn’t even too sure about the bari anymore.

The trip did not go well.

My friend ended up being too busy to focus on my project (still no name for it) and I was pretty clueless as to how to get started. (Where were the Screenplay for Dummies books back then?)

A week went by.

My wife and I had very little money in those days. I was still trying to land on my feet employment-wise due to our recent move to Seattle. Fortunately I could stay with my sister in L.A. and not rack up hotel bills…BUT…,

…somehow in the general confusion, I lost my return trip air ticket. This is unusual for me as I’m not an airhead when it comes to keeping track of expensive items.

Enough is enough. I know when to throw in the towel. There were too many bad omens.

Did I try to stick it out? You bet. I even went as far as applying for a job as one of those keyboard-demo dudes who used to stand out in front of the mall music stores trying to catch people’s eyes as they walk by in order to entice them into the shop to purchase an electronic keyboard that they will never play. I got the job but couldn’t make myself take it.

Sometimes you just have to know when to retreat and regroup.

My friend generously gave me the money to buy a return ticket. I’m still grateful.

There was one positive thing that occurred however. It was the composition of This Magic Night, a song that will later appear in Act 1, scene 3.  As yet there’s no demo of it that I care to share.

There will be music from the show in the next post.

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After the L.A. debacle it took me a while to get back on track.

How did I lose that ticket? Damn!

For awhile I didn’t get a chance to think about Sweet Willow (it still did not have a name yet) due to a commission I received from a local performance group called The Rainier Chamber Winds. I re-scored an older work of mine for them that was originally composed to simulate a game of Russian Roulette. The piece consists of five movements. At the end of each, someone has to ‘pull the trigger’ on the ‘gun’. The triggered gun can be almost anything. Examples: several inflated lunch bags and one with flour in it, a series of balloons and one filled with water, etc. You get the idea. (maybe)

The piece ends when the ‘gun’ goes off irrespective of whether all the movements have been heard. It was composed for a five day festival in the UK. What was fun about the idea is that the performers and the audiences would never know if they would get to play or hear the work in its entirety. We thought it would encourage listeners to return for repeat performances.

Where is this going? I’ll tell you. The Chamber Winds wanted to perform it without the chance element but still wanted to keep the ‘loaded gun’ idea. It was going to be performed for a series of children’s concerts. An actor was hired to dress like a clown, silently play with a large inflated balloon during each of the five movements then at the very end, he breaks the balloon. The performances went well but kids cried every time the balloon went bang.

What does this have to do with Sweet Willow? I’m getting there, be patient.

I became friendly with the actor who performed as the mime. His name is Paul Prappas. He turned out to also be a gifted playwright and musician. Somehow I managed to convince him that working on this show was a good idea. He took the leap of faith and we began working  like the two mad men we are. Paul wrote the first book, all five or six or seven (at some point I lost count) versions of it.

A theatre connection of mine put us in contact with a New York producer. We began to get positive feedback on our efforts.

Alas, that connection fell through when some bozo pal of the New York producer told him our show was no good.

Hmm, he seemed to like it fine prior to asking his pal.

Well, amid the weeping and the gnashing of teeth we bravely set out to storm every port. Now the story becomes all too familiar to anyone who has ever tried to publish a book, get a play produced or do anything that requires cold calls. We begin to collect rejection notices, lots of them.

Still, like our immensely talented but underdog boxer Odelle Brown in this next musical excerpt, we soldiered on.

Ringside: the opening number of Sweet Willow.

Many thanks here to the voice over talents of Adrian D. Cameron and Mathew Houot .

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Here we begin some demos from Act One.

Were these demos ever recorded to be the polished, definitive versions of these songs?


Did I have a ton of money to spend on a band to play them?

Uh uh.

Did I have all the groovy gear then that I have now so they could sound as good as an up-to-date studio can make them?

Er…,would you believe they were all recorded on a 4 track and then later an 8 track cassette porta-studio?

Am I making excuses?

You bet, and if I were reading someone else’s account I’d probably be thinking, “Stop with the excuses and get on with it.”

Oh, and here are a couple more EXCUSES.

The demos were only intended to be a guide for my co-writers and myself to have some idea of how the show would sound. I’m playing and singing all the parts and they were done fast, like first or second takes.

Anyway, this story runs chronologically. Right now it’s all about what resources I had back then and what I was able to do despite their limitations.

One last question. Do these demos show the amazing musical promise and potential that this show can achieve?

Oops, one more. Are they good, well crafted songs with engaging lyrics?

Absolutely, and I can’t wait to hear them performed by a real blues band and singers.

Okay, as you read in the last post, Odelle has won the big bout with Turk McGraw in an amazing upset. There’s going to be a big party in the Venetian Room at Hank Desmond’s hotel to celebrate the victory. Odelle has turned down offers of rides to the party because he needs to ‘wind down’. As he’s walking to the hotel, a figure emerges from the shadows. It is Jimmy Shine, an old pal he’s known since childhood. Jimmy has just been released from prison. Jimmy has heard rumors about Odelle having an affair with a white woman. Odelle, jubilant in his love for Mona Desmond, sings this account to Jimmy.

She’s Some Lady


She’s some lady, she’s so fine, she means everything special to me.

I’m her baby and she’s mine, my heart opened with the turn of her key.

She’s my blessing from heaven, my seven-eleven, a light to make a blind man see.

Now this lady, she’s got eyes that pick you up and drink you in.


This lady, she got a soul that’s never known the taste of sin.

Her heart makes me stronger, I’m glad I’m no longer on the outside lookin’ in.

She gives me her strength when I’m feeling weak, her ocean of love it’s deeper than deep,

And she takes me, she takes me and lifts me up in the air.

Her magic it move me, her spell it undo me and scatters me everywhere.

Repeat first verse.

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