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Always composed

Playwright will use Burbank native’s music in ‘An Italian Straw Hat’ at South Coast Repertory.

September 20, 2008|By Joyce Rudolph

Composer Dennis McCarthy created the songs for a new musical and found the process to be as fun as the material.

Playwright John Strand is using the Burbank native’s music in his show “An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville,” a remake of Eugene Labiche’s mid-19th-century farce “An Italian Straw Hat.” It’s in its world-premiere run through Oct. 5 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

It is South Coast Repertory’s first commissioned musical and incorporates not only vaudeville, but ragtime, light opera and barbershop quartet, all genres that are familiar to McCarthy.


The first time McCarthy, Strand and director Stefan Novinski got together, it was supposed to be a get-to-know-you meeting, he said.

“But we listened to the music of the period and in one meeting wrote the first four songs,” McCarthy said. “It was fast.”

There was no time for McCarthy to even leave the room for a while and consult his muse, he said.

“There was lots of energy from everybody in the room,” he said. “Just John and Stefan and myself. And a piano. It was a very exciting couple of hours.”

McCarthy’s music is a perfect match, said John Glore, associate artistic director.

“John’s idea was to transplant the original play from mid-19th-century Paris to turn-of-the-century New York, and Dennis is conversant of the style of that period, so he took that idea and ran with it,” Glore said. “He took ragtime styles, light opera styles, and that really fit the world that John had already created.”

In addition to McCarthy’s music knowledge, he’s also a great collaborator, Novinski said.

“When the project or song needs to change, he’s ready with a new one right away, Novinski said. “He’s not precious about his work. He’s not married to anything. This process was such a very free form.”

Strand called McCarthy a walking encyclopedia of music styles and genres.

“He’s someone you can say, ‘I need something here, or the mood needs to slow down here,’ and Dennis would go to the piano, and in 10 minutes, he’d have something brand new, fabulous, just what you want,” Strand said.

This is only McCarthy’s second musical. He started off in the 1960s and ’70s with Glen Campbell on the road conducting orchestras and playing piano.

“Then I got into TV and did ‘Dynasty,’ ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and ‘MacGyver,’” he said.

Then he started creating scores for all four of the “Star Trek” TV series, which he has won two Emmy Awards for. He also composed the music on the Star Trek series’ first feature, “Generations.”

McCarthy recently started working in musical theater with South Coast Repertory. He has composed music for several of its performances and wrote the score for its children’s theater for “The Only Child” by Quincy Long.

But the biggest thrill has been to see his 21 songs for Strand’s lyrics in “Straw Hat,” he said.

“It’s extremely exciting,” he said. “It’s great to see everything merge. The piano lessons are finally paying off.”

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