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Gaelynn Lea on crafting music for Broadway's 'Macbeth'

The Duluth artist has been in New York for the past two months fine-tuning musical cues for her original score.

A tableau of 14 actors posing against a dark backdrop, with a man and woman reclining in chairs at front and center, eerily lit in purple light.
The cast of "Macbeth," with stars Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga front and center.
Contributed / Joan Marcus
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NEW YORK CITY — "Of all the things I've done, I'm most proud of this one so far," said Gaelynn Lea, speaking via phone to her hometown newspaper. A journey that began with an email out of the blue last summer is set to end Thursday when a new production of "Macbeth" officially opens on Broadway.

Lea wrote and recorded an original score for the Shakespeare play, and she said her music is heard throughout. "There were 50 different spots where he heard music coming in and out," she said about director Sam Gold's vision for the scope of her work in the production. "It's not just scene transitions. I'm actually underscoring a lot of the talking."

The Duluth-based musician will be on the red carpet for Thursday's premiere; her husband, parents and in-laws will also be present. "We are going to get all dolled up," said Lea, though she noted that celebrations will be scaled down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

While many Americans are doffing their masks and moving about the world freely again, performing arts professionals are among those who need to exercise continuing precautions: One COVID-19 case can derail an entire show, as has already happened with "Macbeth." Multiple cast members tested positive for COVID this month, including actor Daniel Craig. Best known as the sixth James Bond in Eon Productions' blockbuster movie franchise, Craig plays the title role in "Macbeth."

"The actors have it hard because they don't wear masks while they're acting," said Lea, who credited the production's COVID safeguards for helping to contain the outbreak. The actors' illnesses have added pressure to the preview process, in which members of the public are invited to purchase tickets for early performances to help the artists fine-tune the show before a production officially opens.

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Lea's been an integral part of that process, working closely with Gold and sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman to craft precisely timed music cues. "There are scenes where you press a 'go' button, which starts the cues on a certain word," Lea explained, "and then you press another cue, like, two sentences later."

While Lea said the decision to use recorded music rather than have it performed live was primarily "a budget issue," she noted the use of recorded music created opportunities to weave the music intricately into the sound design and to explore different arrangements. "We can do more with sound effects and layering up, you know, 12 violin parts instead of just one violin."

A woman holds a violin and sits in a wheelchair as a man at her left leans against the chair in a studio crowded with musical instruments.
Gaelynn Lea and Jake Larson worked together in Duluth for three months to make and edit the initial recordings for Lea's "Macbeth" score.
Contributed / Courtesy the Artists

Lea performed her own violin parts, working with fellow Duluthian Jake Larson to record and edit the tracks. Minnesota musicians Al Church (percussion, drums), Dave Mehling (keyboards, piano) and Jeremy Ylvisaker (electric guitar) also contributed to the final tracks as heard in the production. "There is one spot where vocals appear," added Lea, hinting that to say more might be a spoiler for those who haven't seen the show. She expects a soundtrack album will be released within a year or so.

The composing process started in Duluth back in December, said Lea. She and Larson "got together like three nights a week for three months, because there's a lot of music and I was trying to come in with ideas. Like, I was singing into my phone. Each character kind of has a theme, and it changes over time depending on what happens to their character."

What does the music sound like? It's under wraps at least until the premiere, but Gold became interested in working with Lea, she said, after hearing her 2018 recording of "Metsäkukkia," a traditional Finnish song. "It's very apocalyptic the way I played it. It's not like how you usually hear it, and he liked that dark, layered, kind of intense sound."

When the email first came in, said Lea, she didn't realize what "a huge opportunity" the project would be. "I didn't know it was actually Broadway, and I actually hadn't heard of Daniel Craig!"

She certainly has now, and Lea's involvement with the production has raised her own profile. Already nationally known as a winner of NPR's 2016 Tiny Desk Contest and as an advocate for people with disabilities (she was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, and uses a wheelchair), Lea earned a Variety headline in March as an artist "breaking Broadway barriers."

After the premiere, Lea will finally come home to Duluth, where she'll get back to working on her forthcoming book. "It did derail the book plan," Lea said with a chuckle about her Broadway turn, "but what's cool is, this is such a fun project that I know it will make it into the book."

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She'll also perform on the Duluth Public Library's outdoor stage for the Duluth Homegrown music festival, in a free all-ages performance scheduled for May 8 at 4:30 p.m. Lea's not sure whether she'll be able to perform any of the "Macbeth" music, but said she's looking forward to the gig. "I'm gonna play some more experimental stuff, no matter what," she said. "Just for fun, a change of pace."

After the Homegrown performance, said Lea, in addition to her book project, she'll be going into schools as part of YourClassical MPR's Class Notes program. "So, jumping right back into real life, which is very weird," Lea said with a laugh. "Very weird, compared to the last two years! But, that's how it's working out."

MORE BY JAY GABLER
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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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