Meet the Composer: Joe Trapanese

Meet Three Wise Guys composer Joe Trapanese

New Jersey-born Joe Trapanese is a successful composer, arranger, and producer of music for everything from movies such as The Greatest Showman (2018’s best-selling soundtrack) to recordings by artists like Daft Punk, Dr. Dre, and Kelly Clarkson.

A graduate of Manhattan School of Music, Joe’s career has also included writing music for the theater, most notably for productions for TACT/The Actors Company Theatre. This includes TACT’s Mainstage productions of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum, Edward Bond’s The Sea, and Milan Stitt’s The Runner Stumbles.

Now, for the first time in seven years, Joe returns to the TACT stage as the composer of music for Three Wise Guys, the Damon Runyon-inspired comedy now playing at the Beckett Theatre in Theatre Row through April 14. Here, Joe shares what it was like to work with TACT on Three Wise Guys

As a composer, what stood out for you when you first read the script for Three Wise Guys?
I was immediately struck by the unique flow of dialogue. ‘Runyonese’ was fairly new to me. I was familiar with Guys and Dolls but that’s about it.

I loved diving into Runyon’s particularities and using his language as an inspiration for the flow of my music.  And the characters – so lovable and flawed! I think everyone has at least one of these characters in his or her family somewhere. Just thinking about that helped me to draw forward-looking, inspiring material.

How did you choose which moments to underscore?
It was a combination of first thoughts on my initial reading of the script along with several meetings with our director Scott Alan Evans. It’s wonderful working with Scott because he not only knows what he wants, he’s also open to what his collaborators might bring to the table.

This is something I’ve recognized in each successful director with whom I’ve worked: the ability to have a distinct vision while also getting excited about new ideas that might be illuminated during production and collaboration.

Did your music for the show evolve over time?
Yes, and in particular the phrasing of the music, which evolved massively from beginning to end. The rhythm and energy of the score is so important to nail in a show like this. The energy has to be precisely right to give the play its momentum while also being somewhat transparent. I want the audience to feel as if the music has always been there.

What was the first music you wrote for Three Wise Guys?
The key to unlocking the score came with my work on the shadow plays. Seeing mockups of these sequences broadened and completed my understanding of what an incredibly unique theatrical experience Scott has produced.

After I sat in on rehearsals, it felt like my focus had sharpened. Previously, I had been a bit lost down the rabbit-hole of Runyonese. I was trying to use his unique dialect to inspire music and perhaps getting just a little too heady. Seeing the shadow plays created the proper mirror for that initial inspiration of pure emotion and energy.

Who or what are your music influences? And were there any that specifically impacted your work on Three Wise Guys?
My background is very eclectic. I grew up loving hip-hop, film scores, and orchestral music. Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Beethoven, Monteverdi, John Williams, Biggie Smalls. A bit odd, I know, but good music is good music and it all made me feel something powerful.

So I’ve always felt like I lived in the cracks between all of these established mediums – living both in the present with a contemporary blend of these influences, but also working to create something timeless and profound. On Three Wise Guys, I related to some of these characters because they also live between the cracks. While we needed a jazz-inspired ‘surface’ because of the time period, we also needed raw musical moments to underscore the universal emotions and desire of the characters. In addition, the language pushed me to use a lot of jagged figures inspired by Stravinsky and Hindemith who, while incredibly different, both brought a unique rhythmic energy and angularity to modern composition.

What are the differences between composing for the theater compared to working on movies or recordings?
In live theater I have to rely even more on our director, sound designer, and cast. Every performance is different and new!  In movies, once we ‘lock picture,’ the film never changes. Once an album is mixed and mastered, it will always be played back in the same way.

For live theater, I have to structure my music very differently both by building sections of material that can be vamped or shortened, while also giving the actors clear rhythmic gestures to work with and to use to time their performance. It can feel complicated at first, but it’s really satisfying once you get in sync with the production. In this case, I feel like once we got into the groove of the play, the musical rhythm and the rhythm of the performance worked hand in hand.

Does the show’s setting and tone affect the music?
The sets and shadow plays are so incredibly inspiring. I wanted the energy from the very beginning of the first shadow play to carry all the way through to the final shadow play. So it was important to revisit this momentum and emotion throughout the show.

What do you hope your music will contribute to the overall production of Three Wise Guys?
I’m always excited by how I can work with a director and actors to alter the pace to a performance. So much energy comes from the actors and the script. But there are always moments when music must create excitement that could not be accomplished without scoring.

There are also times where we want to feel a pause, and music can often help with that as well. I’m especially proud of the ending of the show. The script by Scott Alan Evans and Jeffrey Couchman brilliantly weaves the finale together (which is particularly impressive when you consider the number of characters the actors portray), and we use music at specific moments to propel the performances from beat to beat. I feel as if the integrity created between the score and the performances is distinct and very satisfying, and I’m incredibly proud of that.