Composer Gets Plays Started on Right Note

Jean Hauser is a person to whom details are important.

When she took on the task of directing the current West Coast premiere of “The Last Good Moment of Lilly Baker” for the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, she wanted to get the atmosphere just right. So she sent away for the brochures from various New England inns until she found the one that became a model for the set.

But when she thought about the sound, she knew she needed help.

“I thought of a lot of reasons I was doing “Lilly,” and sound wasn’t one of them. I’d say, ‘Boy, I can’t hear anything with this.’ Absolutely nothing came to mind, musically speaking.”


After considering and rejecting all the pieces she and John Hauser, her husband and the Gaslamp’s resident sound designer, could think of, she did something neither she nor the Gaslamp had ever tried before. In her other role as company manager for the Gaslamp, she called a composer and asked him if he could provide “something special for ‘Lilly.’ ”

It’s the kind of call Lawrence Czoka gets more and more often these days. As the San Diego theater community puts more of an emphasis on generating premieres and putting their own original stamps on projects, the handful of composers in town find themselves increasingly in demand.

And with most of the others used rather consistently by the larger theaters (Conrad Susa with the Old Globe Theatre, Victor Zupanc with the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Michael Roth with the La Jolla Playhouse--which he recently left to move back East), Czoka, who is the resident sound designer for the Bowery Theatre, finds himself increasingly called upon by a host of smaller up-and-coming companies.

Running simultaneously with his “Lilly Baker” score is the one Czoka composed immediately afterward for “Independence,” running at the Bowery Theatre. They are the latest in the 13 shows for which he has composed original music in the eight years since he completed his master’s degree in music from UC San Diego. Eight of those shows were done this year alone.


Although most of the theaters here can’t afford to pay much, if anything, for Czoka’s services (“It barely pays for the gas to and from the theater,” he said)--it is nevertheless a painstaking process that he prefers to any other, including the way he makes a living: arranging and transcribing jingle tunes for Tuesday Productions in Rancho Bernardo.

Before Ginny-Lynn Safford, the director of “Independence,” commissioned Czoka’s score for that show, she had worked with him on “Just Between Ourselves” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, and “Bent” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” at the Bowery Theatre. She knew she could expect him to pick her brain about her ideas for the show.

Because “Independence” is about the complex interrelationships between a mother and her three daughters, Safford said her suggestion was to have four different strains “that play with each other at different times,” becoming, when they connect, either “a minor abrasion or a beautiful harmonious connection.”

To this idea Czoka added the sound of flutes and guitar to reflect the absorption of the oldest daughter in Scottish ballads. He also added a pump organ because, like the characters in the play, Czoka’s mother’s family is from Iowa and the memory of his grandmother’s pump organ seemed to capture the religious spirit of the place.


Seeking a distinctive sound for “Lilly” was harder, he said, for just the reason Hauser approached him about doing it. She wanted a complicated “off-center” sound that she herself found hard to articulate.

Hauser shook her head, smiling as Czoka remembered how she tried to explain her ideas to him. “Lilly is so normal, but not normal. Every situation I came up with had a contradiction to it. . . . It’s real people in a real situation, but it’s all a little crooked as they try to connect or reconnect.”

Never having worked with a composer before, she didn’t know what to expect. She said she was relieved to learn that he wasn’t planning to start composing until after the show began to take shape.

“A lot of my fears were allayed by knowing how much time Larry was going to spend watching this.”


That’s standard procedure for Czoka. “When the rehearsal gets into the part where we get to the first run-through, or ‘stumble-through’ as we call it, that’s when it begins coming together for me.”

A few weeks into the process, after trying and rejecting everything from a “Twilight Zone” type of sound to Cuban music to cowboy songs that would have reflected some of the running images in the play, Czoka came up with the sound of bells.

“I guess the distinctive thing to me is that it was in New England. I thought about church steeples,” he said.

Hauser jumped in enthusiastically. “Bells to me were wedding bells, since this was about marriages and honeymoons (among the four characters). I wanted it to have that sort of strangeness . . . a what’s wrong with this picture, unsettling sound. . . . and I wanted it to be happy and positive as well as ominous.”


Once they settled on the bells, and Czoka assembled a fugue around it, he asked Hauser the question that, in its attention to detail, really won her over.

He wanted to tie the bells into a clock tower, he told her, and asked her how many hours she thought Bob and Lilly Baker would have driven to get to the inn when the play starts.