Kevin O’Donnell is a Chicago-based composer and sound designer. In addition to long affiliations with the likes of Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, he has worked closely with the Hypocrites and their artistic director, Sean Graney, including music-directing an unlikely storefront version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. His new anthology musical opens at the House Theatre of Chicago this month.
What are you working on now?
The House Theatre is producing a show I’ve written, and I’m directing it. It’s called Ploughed Under: An American Songbook [April 19–June 9]. It’s a song cycle of folk tales, about people I think of as American folk heroes but we don’t often think of as such. One is about a man who was born free but enslaved for 12 years because he was African-American. There are also Native American stories we don’t think of as American. I’m trying to reclaim these stories.
What do the songs sound like?
My influence for a lot of them is jazz. A lot of the rhythms are taken from African music. I’m a drummer by training, so rhythmic stuff is always a big influence on me. And I’ve listened to a lot of folk music over the years, including bluegrass and alt-country. It’s a hodgepodge for sure.
Let me get this straight: You’re directing this show, but not music-directing?
I realized I shouldn’t music-direct it, too. I’m trying not to be a total megalomaniacal fool. I’ve worked before with Tommy Rapley, and he ended up being the person who really taught the actors the songs, so he’s the music director on this. Still, the act of directing will go hand in hand with music-directing. It’s a 10-person ensemble of musician/singers, so the lines are intentionally blurred. I’ve done a lot of stuff like that, where the cast is playing all the music, so the director and I have had to make choices together—if he’s decided someone will walk up the stairs and drop confetti, but I want them playing guitar at that moment, we have to figure that out.
Was it your idea to do storefront Gilbert and Sullivan?
I remember being really surprised when Sean Graney approached me about that. I’m not a musical-theatre guy. We’d done Machinal and 4:48 Psychosis together, so when he said, “What about Pirates of Penzance?” I said, “Sounds good…I don’t really know it.” He said, “I don’t either!” So we downloaded it from iTunes. He was excited; I was daunted, but I thought, “It’ll probably be a fuckin’ fun experiment.” It was; we had an amazing cast, and it was exciting, though I know I didn’t look excited on certain nights of rehearsal.
I felt like I was more of a coach than anything. I had scored it out, but they basically learned it from sheets where they’d just written out the lyrics with chord names written over them. We were all doing stuff we’d never done before. It’s hard to play a diminished chord on a ukulele, for instance, so I would help come up with an alternative.
Do you have a dream musical project?
I’ve always wanted to make a new arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin wrote it for two pianos, and the most popular recognized arrangement, by Ferde Grofé, is very orchestral. I’d love to turn it into something a jazz band could play.
How frequently do you pursue your own projects?
I’ve been trying to be more aggressive about my own work, and Ploughed Under is one result of that. I’ve always thought of myself as being more of a writer than a designer, so I do pitch myself as a primary collaborator who wants to be in it from the beginning. But often I am waiting for someone to come to me and say, “Hey, will you do the music for Coriolanus?”
What is your first theatrical memory?
I’ve got two. As a grade-school student in Jersey, I saw a production of Macbeth on Broadway. I don’t remember anything about it, except being aware of the stage lighting—there was a pool of light and everything else was black. Then I remember my parents taking me and my brother to see Penn & Teller on Broadway; it wasn’t theatre, but it was awesome.
How did you get involved in theatre?
I met a choreographer, Molly Shanahan, who wanted music for her company [Mad Shak]. I wasn’t a composer; I was a percussion major and a drummer. She had me write 45 minutes of music. A lot of it was horrible and repetitive—I would try to spin one minute of music into 20 minutes.
But as I started developing more as a composer, I was learning more about how to tell a story, and I was living in Chicago, where you can’t swing a cat without meeting someone who’s painting a set or acting in some show. I started working with Redmoon, and then Chicago Shakes, and then I went to see a play and Sean Graney sat next to me. He said, “I’m working on Machinal.” On that show, I don’t think there was a moment of silence—there was recorded music, a live musician, sound design everywhere. It was a rude awakening when I started working on shows where all they needed were two piano transitions and a doorbell.