CHICAGO — The critical success in Chicago and Off Broadway of his musical “Adding Machine” made composer Josh Schmidt one of the country’s most intriguing new voices in musical theater.
Elmer Rice’s 1923 American Expressionist play about technology as a cancerous threat to contemporary life was an unlikely candidate for musical adaptation. Yet the austerely original chamber piece crafted by Schmidt not only validated the audacious choice of subject matter, it also won the 33-year-old composer an instant following and a handful of awards. His follow-up project promises to be equally unconventional.
For “A Minister’s Wife,” bowing June 4 at the Writers’ Theater in Glencoe, Ill., Schmidt teams with adapter Austin Pendleton, lyricist Jan Tranen and director Michael Halberstam on a reworking of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida.”
The project had been brewing for several years, but its immediate appeal following “Adding Machine” stemmed from the fact that the source material was so completely dissimilar. Shaw’s 1898 play concerns the tug of war between a socialist minister and a young poet over the affections of the minister’s independent-minded wife.
“I knew this would stretch me in a very different direction,” says Schmidt. ” ‘Adding Machine’ divided itself into drastically contrasting sections based on how each was written. ‘Candida’ is linear, and Shaw’s dialogue is like chamber music in and of itself. If people are expecting ‘Adding Machine 2,’ I will be happy to disappoint them.”
While the project presents an aesthetic challenge, Schmidt is glad to be working in a familiar environment, where the expectations can be kept in check. Writers’ Theater, with a main house of only 108 seats but a large subscriber base, has been one of Schmidt’s artistic homes for years.
It was Writers’ Theater a.d. Halberstam who brought Schmidt to Chicago as a sound designer after hearing a composition he wrote for a production of “Measure for Measure” in Milwaukee, where Schmidt grew up and went to college. (He majored in music composition at the U. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.)
“Halfway through the show was a song of such sophistication that I thought it had to be from an existing source,” recalls Halberstam. “I went up afterwards to the director and asked, and Josh was right there.”
Schmidt has since worked frequently at Writers’, including doing the music for an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which also played Off Broadway. When Halberstam directed “Candida” at New York’s Jean Cocteau Rep in 2005, the theater commissioned Schmidt to compose the incidental music as a first step in potentially turning the show into a musical.
“It was like a first date,” says Schmidt. “We had to see if the show sings.”
Playwright and actor Pendleton, who has also worked at Writers’ Theater and who met Schmidt through “Adding Machine” helmer David Cromer, at first agreed to consult on the adaptation, hesitant to dive in fully to the tricky task of rewriting Shaw. But then he saw Schmidt’s work.
“I haven’t been that excited by a musical, and by the music in a new musical, as when I saw ‘Adding Machine,’ ” Pendleton says.
“I think the guy saw the show 14 times,” says Schmidt, referring to Pendleton with an expression somewhere between flattered and bemused. The production won a string of Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle and Obie awards for its 2008 Off Broadway run.
Pendleton loves musicals, but he’s not exactly known for such work. “I’ve written musical books before,” he says. “But this is the first that will make it all the way to the first performance without my being fired.”
Pendleton describes his adaptation task as “clearing the tracks” for the music, which both he and Halberstam call “highly emotional.” But if Schmidt has a flair for the musically dramatic, the drama doesn’t seem to permeate his collaborations.
“He’s a totally positive soul,” says Pendleton, who admits he’s worked with his share of brilliant artists who come with “other tensions.” “Josh doesn’t seem to have those problems.”
“The texture of the music in ‘A Minister’s Wife’ is completely different, but as complex, as ‘Adding Machine,’ ” Pendleton says. “That impulse for the music to spring from the deepest part of the characters is still there,” he adds.
“Josh writes sparse, searingly beautiful compositions that are always matched with what’s happening onstage,” says Halberstam.
Pendleton focuses the new work completely on the play’s central love triangle. In doing so, he has excised a main character — the wife’s father — who plays no role in the romantic plot, serving mostly as a capitalist foil to the minister’s political ideals.
“Shaw’s conversational dances are part of the delight of doing his work,” says Halberstam. “But sometimes they can alienate and obfuscate.”
The idea with “A Minister’s Wife” is to condense and clarify the scenes and “allow the music to lift the psychological complexity.”
As he demonstrated with “Adding Machine,” complexity is something of a specialty for Schmidt. And while he wants to stretch, he doesn’t seem especially interested in simplifying.
“We want to build sequences within Shaw to their point of highest tension,” he explains, “and then never resolve it.”If he’s feeling the heat of following up on a major critical success, Schmidt is not letting on. “There’s no pressure that this has to be a commercial entity,” he says. “I like working for and being part of this community. It’s not my intention to use it as a stepping stone to something else.”