Not many boys write theme songs for their mother at the request of their aunt, but that type of unique family affair has always been the essential fabric of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, Theatricum prepares to offer another of its original productions, Merlin, opening Friday as the dot on the exclamation point of a repertory season that includes The Taming of The Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Royal Family.
Written and directed by Ellen Geer, Merlin will feature Geer’s sister, Melora Marshall, in the title role of the wizard of Arthurian legend. Geer and Marshall are the daughters of Theatricum founder, Will Geer. Ellen Geer has served as artistic director of the organization since her father’s death in 1978. Geer’s daughter Willow Geer (Guinivere), and daughter-in-law Abby Craden (Morgana), are also in the cast.
Providing the soundtrack for this family affair is an original musical score composed by Marshall McDaniel and Kellen McDaniel–Melora Marshall’s sons and Ellen Geer’s nephews. Writing songs at Auntie’s request for Mom to sing is a new challenge for the two brothers.
“They’re remarkable young talents,” says Geer of the two musicians she has watched grow up “through music.” Together they have provided a score of 16 original songs, more than 175 sound cues and more than 40 minutes of music for the two-act play. To see them work, “now at this level,” is rewarding, Geer says.
Geer’s was first inspired to write an original play based on Arthurian legend years ago when Kellen McDaniel asked her to do a play about King Arthur. “He came to me at about 11 years old,” she recalls.
Geer studied the legends and “found Merlin was the most interesting [character].” Three years ago, Geer began writing her play about the life and identity of the magical character known to many as tribal shaman, Celtic druid, medieval sorcerer, fantastical wizard and supreme necromancer. Throughout literary history, the character of Merlin has had many forms. Geer’s script creates Merlin out of the druid tradition, she notes, but also includes much of the folklore surrounding the mage, including legends of Stonehenge and Atlantis.
“Merlin is a harbinger of truth–something we need so badly,” Geer says.
Overcoming Space and Time
The McDaniel brothers began their work on the project late last year. Marshall McDaniel previously provided the score for Theatricum’s original production of Dracula in 2007, but the two brothers began collaborating together only last year, Kellen says, when they created a piece for the PODIUM Festival in Germany.
Marshall studied music at the University of Arts, Berlin (UdK, Berlin). Kellen is a fellow at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. For the first few months of their work on Merlin, it was a “remote collaboration,” says Kellen. “Modern technology allowed us to share across oceans,” says scriptwriter/director Aunt Ellen. The brothers returned to California in May and have been working “hot and heavy ever since,” she says.
The McDaniels developed their score from fifth century Celtic and Saxon roots–“a wild time in history,” Kellen says. Marshall notes that creating a score by combining fifth century musical foundations with electronic technology has been particularly enjoyable. “Making magical music is so fun,” he says, “because you get to pull out all of your weird stuff.”
According to Kellen, the result is a well-established “balance between historical accuracy and the fantasy of the story.” Then the music becomes “more of a subconscious thing that flows through the play,” Marshall says.
Together the brothers serve as a two-man orchestra. Some of the underscoring includes “orchestral sized” sessions, with full strings layered on, track by track. Some pieces include horn sections, live percussion, and special effects.
Both McDaniels admit that working alongside your brother is sometimes a difficult task. Developing the proper relationship between composer and editor has been an essential key to making the magic happen, they agree.
“I have a higher level of mutual respect for my brother than anyone else I have ever worked with,” says Kellen. “I don’t understand that kind of work ethic, but I definitely respect it.” (Marshall is the older of the two and “has been working at [music composition] awhile,” Kellen notes.)
Geer says the collaboration has been very easy for her. “You sit there and you hear or you see something, and you all just know,” she says. “If it’s too lengthy, or too melodic–you just know.”
For Marshall, the key comes with recognizing that “assumptions are dangerous. You’re mostly wrong when you get to rehearsal.”
For all of his self-deprecation, Marshall is still the one who sets the pace, Kellen notes. “I’ve learned I like my brother a lot more when we’re not working on a project together, because I don’t have to hold myself to his standards.”
Casting the Spell
Piano-only versions of the score were created early on for rehearsal purposes. Marshall has been at every rehearsal to accompany the actors, while noting details about necessary changes in tempo and pitch in each scene. Many of the pieces have been specifically tailored to the voices of the actors throughout the process, he says.
Writing for the actors, sometimes by request, has gone hand in hand with writing for the story and the characters, says Marshall. “I’m interested in the actors being at their most comfortable vocally”–and that includes his mother, he observes. “I continue to learn much more about her voice in the process.”
Ultimately the characters tell the story in this “play with music,” says Kellen. “It’s a music drama. It’s a Wagner term, so I hesitate to use it, but its accurate.”
Geer couldn’t agree more. Speaking about the work from her position as writer and director, she describes the music as assisting in the creation of the characters, locations and important events in the script. “There’s so much movement [in the play]–actors creating buildings, enacting a war that helps you imagine armies of thousands–it’s about the choices you have to make when you have to create magic with no budget,” she says. “It’s a real theater piece.”
Marshall and Kellen have been applying the finishing touches on the final pieces of music as dress and technical rehearsals lead up to this Friday’s opening. As Marshall completes last-minute changes to the score, Kellen is busy writing the music and the cues into the computer-operated program that technicians will use to run the show.
“I don’t recall a project ever being this huge in the theater’s history,” says Geer.
In celebrating 40 seasons of live entertainment “under the oaks,” Geer reflects that the wonderful thing about the Theatricum company has been “watching the family growing through the arts, and contributing to the organization.”
Marshall says that he looks forward to seeing audiences react to the music of the characters, the setting and the fantasy of the story. Kellen shares his brother’s passion. Theatricum, Kellen says, “is the ultimate venue to tell this story in–the natural setting, the 40 years of quality acting, and might I say, a moving score.”
Merlin, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga 90290. Opens July 20. Sat 8 pm, Sun 3:30 or 7:30, depending on dates. Fri. 8 pm (Aug. 9 and Sept. 20 only). Through Sept. 29. Tickets: $10-35. www.Theatricum.com. 310-455-3723.