Composer Andrew T. Mackay Discusses Scoring the Stage Adaptation of ‘Life of Pi’ as It Goes on Tour

Posted in News on July 13, 2023
Photo: Conor Romero

Building on a sensational series of runs in Sheffield, London’s West-End, Boston and New York City’s Broadway, the stage adaptation of Life of Pi, scored by BMI composer/producer/arranger Andrew T. Mackay, is hitting the road with a UK & Ireland tour in August to be followed by a tour of the US. Mackay’s remarkable score for this ambitious production has earned the composer wide acclaim. The London iteration earned the play five Olivier Awards and the Broadway production is a three-time Tony Award winner. Overall, the undertaking of providing the music to this groundbreaking story was a tremendous achievement for the classically trained British composer. Having studied under Dr. William Lloyd-Webber and John McCabe at the London College of Music, Mackay had already amassed an impressive body of work. In 2022, he scored the stage play of Henry V in London’s West End and recently scored a dance film for the UK’s Royal Ballet/Royal Opera House. He is also the co-founder of the popular electronica/world music collective Bombay Dub Orchestra, which merges contemporary electronic music with orchestral elements, Indian semi-classical & folk music.

With the next chapter of Life of Pi unfolding, BMI caught up with the composer to find out how it all came together. Here’s what he had to say.

How does it feel to bring this production of Life of Pi to Broadway?
It’s been an amazing journey! We started in a great regional theatre, The Crucible in the UK, then it transferred eventually after an 18-month Covid delay to the Wyndham’s Theatre West-End that, in itself, was amazing. Its run (via ART Boston) at the Schoenfeld on Broadway was something that at times was hard to fathom. It’s what I dreamt of, but only after standing outside the theatre seeing the signage, attending tech, previews and opening night that I realized it was actually true.

Did anything change from its original London iteration?
That’s a good question! There were quite a few changes that happened during the run in Boston before we came to Broadway and also a few more during previews in New York.  One in particular that stands out for me was the music for Commander Grant-Jones, who is the British Naval officer who helps Pi with instructions on the high seas. For the US, he became Admiral Daniel P. Jackson, a thoroughly American admiral - so the music needed to represent that cultural difference. From a stiff upper lipped but brilliant Englishman to a disciplined American patriot. I researched various musical scenarios including College Marching Bands, but it was the actor Avery Glymph who played the role in the US, who had, in his research for the character, sourced a selection of examples of military music more akin with the USA. I got a drummer colleague in the UK to record a version of the rhythm and then I added piccolos and brass and played the cue in rehearsals. Everyone on stage started shouting USA! USA! USA! (as a tongue in cheek response). I thought to myself this music must work! And so it went into the new US version of the show. There were other changes including a few major ones but definitely improvements. It was wonderful to be in a position to make changes and investigate ways of improving the soundtrack and how it supports the story.

It’s an incredibly ambitious theatrical experience – how did you first get involved?
I got the gig in a very unexpected way. I always say “never despise the days of small beginnings.”  I used to teach piano to youngsters around West London whilst carving my career out as a composer. Some years after stopping my teaching I got a text message from one of the parents of two wonderful children I used to teach. He mentioned that he was dining with a dear friend who had written the stage play for a major new production of Life of Pi and that they were looking for a composer. The next day I was in a coffee shop with Lolita Chakrabarti, the writer, and Max Webster, the director, and there and then they offered me the gig. My immediate response was “YES! Where do I sign?”

Can you describe your creative process?
I had an initial conversation with the director, which was fairly open, but certain parameters were laid down - an idea of what we wanted to achieve, based on the emotional flow of the story and the story itself. From there I wanted to find a colour palette of sounds that helped support the story, the action and ultimately Pi’s journey through all the many emotional highs and lows. There were three sections or elements that I needed to find and they were 1) the family in India and Pi’s ties to his family during his traumatic journey, 2) the drama, the turmoil, the big dramatic moments with the tiger, the ship sinking etc and finally 3) The more spiritual moments on the ocean which were more ambient textural layers and soundscapey type compositions.

I’d written some music in advance of rehearsals to get these three styles or elements in shape, but I then decided to set my studio up in the rehearsal room and do additional writing during rehearsals on headphones. It was a very revealing experience and something that taught me so much. I kind of treated the writing process as if I was scoring a film. Observing the actors in action and seeing the movement of the puppetry gave me a great insight and allowed me to feed off this visual treat.

What were your biggest challenges in creating the score?
I think the sheer amount of music was a challenge in a way - but the story is so clear and wonderful it really plays out in front of you and seemed to lead me in the direction I was to go. And that is how the writing process happened in the rehearsal rooms - heavily influenced by the acting and puppetry as there are many sections without dialogue, which makes it feel almost like a ballet. I did record live orchestra at the very end of the process which became a challenge as things were quite fluid during tech and early previews, so you have to record the additional live elements at the very last minute once everything is locked. There was one other challenge that actually was something that I was kind of prepared for (thanks in a way to BMI - more on that below). Writing on site in rehearsals, and also in the theatre you are not in a typical recording or music studio scenario. Over the various theatres working on the show, I’ve been in a selection of spaces masquerading as a music studio from a VIP Champagne Rooms (without the champagne!) to an empty office, a 1930’s NYC hotel suite and even a windowless broom cupboard. And in those scenarios, you have to mix the music before it goes to the sound designer to insert into the show. But having been on many BMI Songwriting camps in non-studio locales and other situations, you train yourself to either mix on headphones or pretty much any speakers in any type of available space. Often hard when you have your own favourite Monitor Speakers. But it always sounds fab in the theatre when you have a Sound Designer like Tony Award-winning Carolyn Downing doing magic with your mixes or stems.

The score went onto earn an Olivier nomination. What does that honor mean to you?
This was highly unexpected. I was just thrilled to be doing the music, especially as this was my first ever stage play - my first foray into theatre! In fact I was so unaware of the whole process that I wasn’t watching the announcements. Then, I got a twitter notification on my phone. I had a quick look, and it was a link to the Olivier’s YouTube channel. I scrolled the live stream back a few minutes and there was the announcement of my nomination, and it really blew my mind and was an incredible honour. Especially being nominated with incredible fellow nominees including Alan Silvestri!

What’s next for you?
I’ve got the theatre bug so another play, maybe? In the meantime, I am heading back into the studio with Garry Hughes to complete the next Bombay Dub Orchestra album. It’s way overdue but we are really excited with how it’s going and with the collaborations.

I have a record label imprint called Bohemia Junction Recording Co. releasing cross-genre music from India and around the globe, distributed by The Orchard (another NYC Establishment) - which started during lockdown as a means of still keeping music going. I originally started the label to release some of my own soundtracks of the Indian films I’ve scored, as well as the soundtrack to Life of Pi, but ended up also releasing a variety of really interesting records by a host of talented Indian artists including Meghdeep Bose, Sheykhar Ravjiani, Udit Narayan and even Sonu Nigam as well as some other really cool non ‘Indian’ genre music. And I’ve got a period drama feature film coming up soon, so lots going on but to be honest I am earnestly ready for my next stage play score - maybe a musical - collaborating with other songwriters?

What role has BMI played in your career thus far?
I have to say BMI has been behind some major events in my musical career so far. In 2013, I started the Mumbai Composers Lab as part of the Mumbai Film Festival - this was supported by BMI and in particular Doreen Ringer-Ross who guided and advised me and helped us get started. I also attended many songwriting camps instigated by Brandon Bakshi, working with amazing BMI writers from around the globe. I also started the Abbey Road Song Writing Camps with BMI. I’ve made some long-lasting relationships with many of those that I have met through BMI. In fact, just before writing this I sent a track off to be mixed by a BMI member in Trinidad who I’d met on a BMI camp. I personally have always felt that BMI is there ready to answer questions, connect me to other creatives or those in the industry that ordinarily one would find it hard to find and provide great opportunities through the many initiatives they run.

SOURCENews TAGS Andrew T. Mackay


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