Skeleton Army: Composer Insight

Developing the music for Skeleton Army
by Major Len Ballantine (composer)

Major Len Ballantine

Some people are stimulated by group effort, soaking up the energy of others and adding their own to the mix without even thinking about it.  My wife Heather is like that, never happier than when tasked with sharing ideas, chores, laughter or parties.  But for me even the idea of partying is ‘a task’.  Truth is, I don’t have much experience at collaboration. Probably just too many years spent alone on the piano bench.  And then there’s the solitary work I’ve embraced since my youth. Not too much room for community if you’re composing music, scoring a band piece, or writing a sermon, for that matter.

A musical, however, is a collaboration of immense design. A musical requires a starting place, a concept (Neil Leduke), a producer (Carol Jaudes), a writer (John Copeland), a composer (me), a director (Brad Cain), a designer (Hollie Ruthberg).  And then when enough creative effort has been applied there just might be something concrete to hand over for the interpretation of actors.  It is said that on average, a Broadway musical is developed for 7 years before it ever gets produced into a show fit for human consumption.  At the time of writing this we’d been at it for just over one year.

So, on that level alone, composing the musical score for Skeleton Army has been a departure for me.  But, a good one.  A stimulating one.  The team put together for this project is so talented, so like- minded, so full of worthy ideas, so affirming.  The entire creative process has been a delight and an inspiration. 

The unique part for me is that I’ve been able to work with people I’ve never met before at the same time as people I’ve known closely. I’ve learned to trust the capacities of all the collaborators, and I believe the results will speak mightily of the Holy Spirit’s influence on us all.

In particular, my involvement in Skeleton Army put me together with writer John Copeland.  Apparently, John is a very funny man!  But this is a side of him I didn’t really get to see.  Our meetings in person and over telephone/Skype were pretty focussed on the business at hand.  In developing the story, my role felt rather like the wall against which a ping-pong master might practice in lieu of a human opponent.  There was a lot of waiting, listening, reflecting back, and occasionally sending the ball to a spot requiring deft paddle work.  The process became a delicate game of bouncing ideas to see where they would land.  I did my best to keep score.  John seemed to have the capacity to keep all the balls in the air, in his head!  But at the next meeting, there it would be; a new scene freshly written and all the salient tangents tied together.

From the outset I wanted the music to be an organic part of the play.  The challenge was finding a way to let each song emerge from the dialogue and then recede back into the story.  That’s what I mean by organic.  What I didn’t want was the feeling that songs were stand-alone, or that they might just as nicely go here or there in the continuity.

I was also aware of the need for an ‘economy of means’ in such a short format. By this I mean brevity, simplicity and reuse.  These became conscious choices for me as the whole work took shape. A powerful moment could be repurposed and heard again but in a totally different context and intensity.  Subtle motivic development could bind the whole work together, much in the way leitmotif works in Wagner’s operas, but on a miniature scale.  Duets between the main characters could create the perfect environment for telling two points of view simultaneously.  And oh, spoiler alert, a jaunty pub song could appear in all its ribald glory only to reappear later, salvaged and sanctified by the Salvationists in their effort to relate.  In all, there are about 30 points of correlation from song to song within Skeleton Army. Hopefully, through this device the audience will have a sense of relationship and familiarity with the music, even after only one sitting.

The story itself is based on what is known of the central character, Charles Jeffries, a real live Skeleton Captain who was saved at a Watchnight Service in the 1880’s and went on to become a real live Salvation Army officer and pioneer evangelist.  Every time John and I spoke together we took the story a step further, usually to a place where a song could emerge from the dialogue John had just written or was about to write.  Sometimes the song was derived directly from John’s dialogue.  Sometimes it was left to me to find words to continue the thought, amplify a feeling, or extend the story.  John would say he doesn’t write lyrics.  But I found that his dialogue was so lyrical that it voiced itself into song quite naturally.  At this point I feel like neither the hand nor the glove.  I guess that is what collaboration is supposed to feel like.