Stage-to-screen scores pose challenges

Composers use restraint with 'Doubt,' 'Frost/Nixon'

Transfer two Tony award-winning Broadway plays — each known for intensive dialogue and showcase acting — to the bigscreen. Is music even necessary? And, if so, what must it accomplish?

That was the challenge facing Hans Zimmer on “Frost/Nixon” and Howard Shore on “Doubt.” Zimmer was onboard Ron Howard’s film of the Peter Morgan play for months, conferring with the filmmakers even before shooting; Shore came to “Doubt” very late in the game, with only a few weeks to score John Patrick Shanley’s film of his own play.

“We talked a lot about how this is a writer’s and actors’ movie, and how I could cleverly stay out of the way,” says Zimmer (who previously scored Howard’s “The Da Vinci Code”). “I wanted to make a thriller, to give the whole thing a sense of unease, of urgency.”

Piano and strings are featured prominently — in part because Nixon was an amateur pianist — but Zimmer deployed them with caution. “The piano can be very emotional, and I was really trying to do quite the opposite with it,” he says. “One of the inherent problems with music is that it gives you an emotional cushion. The last thing I wanted was to be the guy who made Richard Nixon sympathetic.”

The reality of Nixon, Zimmer points out, is that the 37th president talked and talked. “We have a lot of scenes where the man is droning on, so I had to grab those bits left and right of them and make it all move along a little bit.”

The supporting characters, especially interviewer David Frost’s team of researchers, provided another outlet for music — “the sleuthing and detective work that goes on,” Zimmer says. “I think intelligence and erudition are exciting, and I wanted to make that feel kinetic, make people thinking and talking into an action piece.”

Shanley’s “Doubt,” starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, is set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. “I wanted to capture a feeling of that period,” Shore says, “using folk instruments,” including hammer dulcimer, recorder, Celtic harp and harmonium.

Shore, the “Lord of the Rings” composer who was overseeing the L.A. production of his opera “The Fly” while scoring “Doubt,” used only 17 musicians. “It’s a really intimate story,” he says during a break on the Warner Bros. recording stage. “The dialogue is fantastic, and you want to work carefully with it.”

And with the principal characters being a nun and a priest, the score often takes on a vaguely liturgical air. “I was trying to create an older, specific sound for the Catholic Church,” he explains. There is already considerable organ and choral music in the score (traditional material, not written by Shore), so a cohesive fit was a must.

“Organ music is essentially string music,” Shore explains, “so I have the strings playing in these long chords. I’m working off the sound of the church. Voices are used, but just for the color, their sound; they’re not singing in Latin.”

Shore — who last worked with “Doubt” producer Scott Rudin on the Paul Newman film “Nobody’s Fool” — says “there are very strong thematic pieces that connect characters. The music is really used like another means of expression to tell the story. It’s a pretty pure way to do it.”

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