A new staging of the play Death of a Salesman opened last night on Broadway, with incidental music by Alex North. The score goes back 63 years to the play’s original production. In today’s Fishko Files, WNYC’s Sara Fishko has this appreciation of North’s musical gifts…
For more information about the current production of Death of a Salesman visit the show’s website.
In 1985, a new film of Death of a Salesman starred Dustin Hoffman, with direction by Volker Schlondorff. In an attempt to “update” the material, they threw out Alex North’s music, and replaced it with a “rock”-style score. The score was poorly received, and at that point Dustin Hoffman got involved and contacted North, hoping to emerge with a solution to the problem of how to score the film.
Author and composer George Burt recounts the story...
Alex was so hurt, I mean it’s hard to have a score that you’ve poured your heart into thrown out. Especially by some young turks who don’t know from Adam. So he was angry, didn’t want to talk to Hoffman. But Hoffman insisted and he came over to Alex’s house. And as it turns out the two of them sat at the piano for three days. And Alex just played through the whole score on the piano and he explained to Hoffman why he did this and that. Well, Hoffman was astounded. He admitted he never even thought of music in the film – in film before. Like a lot of actors, I must say. And he hugged Alex and in fact kissed him on his forehead.
So Hoffman went back to the studio and fired those young guys and ordered Alex’s music, which had been recorded, to be put back in the film. And ordered that not a single decision about the score or how the score was cut into the film was to be made without Alex’s approval. This has never happened before, I don’t think, in the history of film.
Johnny Mandel, (composer I Want to Live, The Americanization of Emily, and other films) admitted that he used to steal sheet music from Alex North’s sketches.
When he was doing sketches or little scores that he orchestrated later, or some of the small cues, I'd see if I could get copies of them. I wanted to see what he did. Because he was so interesting in terms of what he used in the way of sounds. Using the low flutes and using these different things. Things that I gravitated towards, anyway. You know, anybody can write large orchestra parts where everybody's doubling everybody. But it's those little things like - almost chamber music - that he wrote, that are so interesting, too.
Elia Kazan had first worked with North on Death of a Salesman, and North’s music made an impression on him. It was Kazan who hired North for the score for A Streetcar Named Desire. Historians and film music buffs agree that Alex North’s score for "Streetcar" was the first jazz-inflected score for an American Film.
More information about the speakers in this edition of Fishko Files...
- George Burt's book, The Art of Film Music, is available here. You can also visit his website.
- Gordon Davidson is a producer/director, now based in Los Angeles. He was artistic director of the Center Theatre Group - which consists of the Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre. He directed Children of a Lesser God and Shadow Box - both on Broadway. He also produced Arthur Miller's American Clock, for which Alex North provided a score.
WNYC Production Credits
Executive Producer: Sara Fishko
Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer
Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister
WNYC Newsroom Editor: Karen Frillmann