Heir To ‘Sound Of Music’
03/08/2007
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Peter Melnick remembers being taken to see “The Sound of Music” on Broadway when he was a few years old. Growing up, he thought everyone’s grandfathers was like his — Richard Rodgers — and wrote wonderful musicals.

By age 6, Melnick knew that he too wanted to write musicals. At 12, he went with his grandmother to Boston to see his grandfather in rehearsals for “Two by Two,” and he found it “incredibly exciting to hang out in the back of the theater and listen.”

Melnick’s own son, daughter and wife were standing in the back of the theater last week, when the composer had his New York premiere. Playwright Christopher Durang wrote the lyrics and book, and Melnick wrote the music for “Adrift in Macao,” now playing Off-Broadway at Primary Stages’ 59East59 Theatre, after a successful run at the Philadelphia Theater Company.

“This is the realization of my longstanding dream, a transformative moment in my career,” Melnick told The Jewish Week in an interview last week on the Upper East Side, a few blocks from where the 48-year-old composer, now a Californian, grew up.

Melnick works in both theater and film (“L.A Story,” “Only You” and the upcoming “Farce of the Penguins”), combining the many threads of his distinguished musical background. His mother, Linda Rodgers, also composed music, and his father, Daniel Melnick, is a film producer (“That’s Entertainment” and the television comedy “Get Smart”). His first cousin, Adam Guettel, another grandson of Richard Rodgers, is an Emmy Award-winning composer.

“Adrift in Macao,” set in the Far East in 1952, is a playful musical comedy, a parody of 1940s film noir. Here, gentlemen are on the shady side, women are tough dames and they favor slinky gowns. The air is always smoky at Rick’s Place, run by Rick Shaw and his Chinese henchman, Tempura. Melnick’s songs, from the torch song “So Long” to “Mambo Malaysian” evoke several genres and move the farce and intrigue along.

“It’s a different kind of funny than most musical comedy,” Melnick says, praising Durang’s particular humor, which he was able to infuse into the lyrics.

“Theater is the most intensely collaborative form that I know of,” Melnick says, explaining the differences between working in theater and film. “Authors are treated as central movers in the process — you’re a critical part of the team.”

“In film,” he continues, “the composer serves someone else’s vision. If you forget that, you never work in that town again.” He adds, “Some directors ask me to score films because I have a quirky sensibility and they create an environment where I can be creative.” His film scoring tends to be more melodically oriented than that of others.

“That’s the place my family background has influenced me. If I can’t put my heart and personality into the writing, it doesn’t interest me,” he says.

Working on “Adrift in Macao” was his first project with Durang. They worked on opposite sides of the country, communicating with lyrics and music on line. But even if they were in the same city, that would be Melnick’s preferred work mode. He doesn’t write with anyone else in the room. He sometimes works at the piano, but can find that he’s “limited by muscle memory” and prefers to write while walking or peering out a window.

“When I’m making up music — the process of hallucinating music that wasn’t written — I hear music and then have to figure out what I’m hearing.”

Melnick, who remembers meeting his grandfather’s longtime collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, says, “When my grandfather was writing, musical theater was one of the centers of the popular universe. These songs meant something to people all over the world. Today it’s a more rarified beast.”

He adds, “Today’s musical theater world is more open. Several different musical traditions can thrive.”

Melnick is also working with librettist Bill Russell on “The Last Smoker in America” and is collaborating with Bill and Cheri Steinkeller on “Esther Plays the Palace,” a musical based on the Purim story.

In recent years, Melnick has become increasingly involved with Jewish life, and has written a “Festival Shechayanu” for a synagogue’s 70th anniversary, a song cycle based on the “Song of Songs” and a setting for the Sh’ma.

“If I’m writing about Macao in the 50s, I’m influenced by the sounds and idioms of the period. When I’m writing about the Asian character Tempura, I’m donning the clothes of that character. If I’m writing a Jewish piece, in an attempt to invoke the sacred, I’ll don a different personality. But it will still be the same voice inside.”

In addition to writing music, Melnick also writes a lot of letters on behalf of the Jewish community. He’s on the board of the Anti-Defamation League in Santa Barbara, and is very involved in Israel advocacy and social action in his community. In 1996, he became a bar mitzvah and learned to leyn, or chant from the Torah, something he now does regularly. He also taught his son, who, now a college freshman, also has interests in composing.

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