David Newman didn’t start out to be a film composer. He wasn’t even fully aware of the crucial role his father had played in film music history until a few years after Alfred Newman had died.
Today, with more than 50 films behind him, David Newman is one of the Hollywood community’s most respected and versatile composers. His music ranges from the quietly powerful “Hoffa” to the unexpectedly charming “The Nutty Professor,” from the heroic character of “The Phantom” to the darkly comic “The War of the Roses.”
David Newman was not quite 16 when his father died in early 1970. Like the other Newman children, he was schooled in violin and piano from an early age and played in community orchestras while in his young teens. He remembers his father telling him that performing in his first public concert (with the Santa Monica Symphony) would be a seminal moment in his life.
“I don’t know how he knew that, but he was right,” Newman says. “I remember it being an amazing experience, beautiful, frightening and powerful. Playing in an orchestra is where I learned the most about music. To this day, I adore classical music, and I’m very interested in opera, which I found out later my father was also extremely fond of.”
Aspirations to conduct
David Newman went to USC, where he received an undergraduate degree in violin performance, and went on to receive his master’s degree in conducting. “I never thought about composing,” he says. “I desperately wanted to be a conductor.” So he spent the late ’70s and early ’80s conducting, mostly in Los Angeles-area theater and community orchestras, and playing film dates.
He began scoring movies in the mid-’80s because, he says, “It seemed like I needed to make this move in my development as a musician.” Following low-budget films with titles like “Critters” and “The Kindred,” he graduated to major studio pictures, notably those of actor-director Danny DeVito (who first hired Newman for “Throw Momma From the Train” and has used the composer on all of his films since).
He soon gained recognition in a related field as music director for Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. Starting in 1987, Newman ran a summer workshop for aspiring film composers, and, more publicly, conducted concerts of classic film music around the world as fundraisers for Sundance’s film music preservation program.
During his four years with Sundance, Newman also made an album of favorite Christmas movie music (including “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street”), oversaw the reconstruction of several classic film scores for public performance (including “The Wizard of Oz”) and composed a new score for F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent “Sunrise.” But it’s in contemporary films, often comedies, that Newman has achieved the greatest prominence. He wrote a raucous score for “The Flintstones,” a triumphant one for “The Mighty Ducks” and a surprisingly dramatic one for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Newman’s ambitions don’t end with movies, however. He’s interested in a synthesis of all of the arts. “I want to write theater pieces, opera, or some kind of amalgamation where there is singing, music and theater,” he says. Along those lines, Newman was the first composer signed up for Filmharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s innovative program that commissions film composers to write original music that will be performed (often to short films by top directors) by the orchestra.
Newman’s piece, inspired by the classic “1,001 Arabian Nights,” is scheduled to debut April 30, with Salonen conducting to computer-animated imagery designed by contemporary Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano.
In the meantime, Newman is writing a triple concerto (for piano, violin, cello and orchestra), and the score for Don Bluth’s forthcoming animated Fox film “Anastasia.” “I’ll probably always write film scores,” he says. “It’s the one place where a composer has almost unlimited resources at his beck and call. When music you have written works well in a film, nothing can beat it.”