‘The Music Man’ (1990)

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page B23, October 7th, 1990
LOS ANGELES — The Universal Studios tour is a joyride through a land of make-believe. The trams make it across a collapsing bridge, escape a flash flood and a menacing space capsule, come through an exploding subway station unharmed. Placidly it rolls alongside a tranquil New England harbor where a great white shark looms from the waters.
The whole thing is an elaborate commerical for Universal films and television programs, and it’s just what the tourists have paid their $22 for, even if the guide doesn’t have the actor’s gift of making it seem he’s just thought up his lines. And when the patter fails, there’s always music to take over: Most of the soundtrack for the tour is by John Williams, who has created more movie music that everyone knows and remembers than anyone alive. An ”E.T.” ride under construction is mentioned and we hear the soaring theme; as the razor jaws gape and scissor, we hear the menacing motive of ”Jaws” that terrified a nation for a whole summer.
What the tour doesn’t tell you is that it’s all make-believe, and that the businesslike work of of creating make-believe is going on elsewhere, not very far away.
The tour winds through the back lot, a town that doesn’t belong together, where a turn around each corner brings you into a different country, city and century — an American town square, a Parisian street cafe, the Transylvanian town where Bela Lugosi prowled by night.
Around another corner is what looks like a quiet street in Santa Fe or the corporate headquarters of Taco Bell. This is Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Productions, and in a low building off to the side, John Williams has his studio, and there he writes his music — the music that has taken permanent hold on the imaginations of more than one generation of American moviegoers.
The studio is just three rooms in a rehabbed writers’ building built in Route 66 tourist-court architecture (“Welcome to the low-rent district,” Williams quips). The rooms themselves are spacious, and only a fair amount of video and audio equipment gives away what’s going on there. Williams’ own room looks like a large study; there’s a desk, a couch, a coffee table. Next to the grand piano at one end of the room a large architect’s table has been rigged up. On it are the tools of Williams’ trade — music paper, pencils, erasers and a stopwatch. A radiant light filters through the curtained windows.
A couple of weeks ago, Williams was there composing the music for a film that will be coming out at Christmas called “Home Alone.” “I didn’t want to do a picture right now,” Williams said. “I’ve been working on a clarinet concerto. But a friend talked me into going to a screening and I just went dippy over the movie — it gave me the same feeling as ‘E.T.,’ though it’s a small picture, without that physical scope. I think the public is going to go crazy for this — it’s a story about an 8-year-old outwitting some very Dickensian villains. There’s a lot of music, about 50 minutes, built on five major themes.”
Before taking a visitor on a guided tour of his West Coast world, Williams stops to finish a phrase on the piano and on paper; no musician can leave a harmonic suspension unresolved. And then he confers briefly with an assistant in the outer room; Williams has discovered a mistake. The final version of the film has been edited a little differently from the one he was working with. In a drugstore scene, one cutaway from the child’s point of view to the glowering bearded villain has been taken out, but the music Williams composed still glowers for that split second; he knows he’ll have to sweeten it up.
Then Williams steps out into the afternoon. “I first came to Hollywood with my parents in 1938 when I was 6 years old, and you could see the coast all the way — up? down? — to Malibu. You can’t do that any more. My dad worked at Warner Bros., which was then out in the country, surrounded by farms, but now there’s been too much unplanned growth — so much so that I’ve been thinking about moving somewhere else, and just keeping a little place to work in here. Over my years with the Boston Pops I’ve gotten very attached to New England, but the places I like in the Berkshires and in New Hampshire are too far away from Symphony Hall to be very practical as places to live.”
As he walks over to the main Amblin building, he passes through an arbor hanging with richly-scented bougainvillea; there’s a small Japanese garden and a pool where fat, lazy carp preen and swim. The decor of the building is a little surprising in its juxtapositions, but because it reflects the taste of an interesting person — Spielberg — it works. Priceless American Indian antiquities hang displayed next to priceless movie memorabilia (a call sheet for a day’s shooting of “Citizen Kane”; an original gel of Disney’s Pinocchio), which in turn hang alongside pricey Norman Rockwell canvasses. The Rockwells are far larger than a cover for the Saturday Evening Post; they are also richer in color and better painted than you might think — it isn’t easy to condescend to these paintings when you see the originals. There’s even a bit of movie music memorabilia: the manuscript of “When You Wish Upon a Star” — “a pretty good tune,” Williams observes. The books on display are decorative and seem to have been bought by the yard; it’s hard to imagine Steven Spielberg settling down to an evening of reading Frances Parkinson Keyes.
The next building over is where the writers work, and up there on the stucco is emblazoned their motto. “Movies while you wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.” There’s also a special nursery for the lucky children of Amblin employees — a yellow brick road winds into the cradle room, and a real-life ship has broken through the wall in another. Spielberg has never lost touch with what children like. The screening room was in use, so even Williams couldn’t barge in. “You know, at the back there’s an old-fashioned movie candy store. When Steven was little, he always wanted a complete snack bar where everything would be free, and now he’s got it. It’s stocked up daily.”
Returning to what he calls “my little music building,” Williams explains he’s only had this office for three years. “For 25 years my studio was at Fox. After my friend Lionel Newman died, Steven offered me this place over here. In a way I was coming back, because I’d worked here before. Alfred Hitchcock’s offices were here, and I worked on his last picture, ‘Family Plot.’ We had lunch a few times and he always took a sirloin steak with a glass of wine. He said he wanted to counteract the animal fat with acid, and he must have known what he was doing!”
The next morning, Williams continued the conversation at his home, in a large but unpretentious house on a corner near UCLA. His wife, Samantha Winslow, wasn’t there — she was off finishing up a vacation home that has long been under construction in Telluride, Colo. “This weekend I will fly out to see it for the first time. All I’ve done so far is answer questions about furniture and tiles and sign a lot of checks! I didn’t want to go until the house was completely finished — it’s out on a mountaintop, and I’m a city boy, you know.” If his wife wasn’t home, his dogs were, barking merrily outside the glass doors.
Upstairs, Williams has another studio; downstairs there is a living room big enough for two grand pianos, a Boesendorfer and a Hamburg Steinway; the room, he says, is ideal for chamber music. Open on one of the pianos are Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas. “I heard Yo-Yo Ma and Manny Ax play one of these at Tanglewood last summer, and they made me want to learn to play this music myself.” On a sideboard stand Williams’ Oscars — and hefty they are; also prominent is a poster announcing the premiere of the First Symphony by John T. Williams, under the direction of Andre Previn. An unusual feature of the decor is Williams’ collection of fine antique carved wooden music stands, the rarest of which is an Italian sextet stand, with room for the music of six string players — each with his own candleholder.
Another prominent presence in Williams’ living room is a long row of leatherbound pencil sketches and scores for most of the films he has composed; it stretches all the way across one wall. “It’s been a working life,” Williams says, without exaggeration. “Even though the point is speed, writing music for films is a very time-consuming thing. I sometimes think to succeed it’s just as important to be strong as it is to be good. It’s a lot to turn out 10 to 15 minutes of music for full orchestra every week.”
Williams acknowledges, “There’s even more music upstairs, spilling out of filing cabinets, but even so I don’t have all of it — the early stuff is probably better off lost. It’s probably immodest of me to save all of this, but always in my ear, I hear the voice of my colleague and friend Bernard Herrmann, who wrote so many great scores for Hitchcock, and he said, ‘Keep your music. You can’t trust anyone else to.’ And as usual, Benny was right.
“Did you know that the whole great MGM music library is gone? Sometime in the ’70s, an insurance inspector came along and wondered what all that dangerous-looking yellow molding paper stuff was doing lying around, and it was destroyed — not only the orchestral scores like ‘Dr. Zhivago’ but also the great musicals. The only way they are preserved is on the sound tracks, and if you want to perform those arrangements, you have to listen to them and write them down. I had to do that myself when I wanted to pull out my music for ‘Jane Eyre’ for the Pops. It had been burned, so I just sat right here with the record and listened to it over and over and copied it by ear. Even last year when I wanted to do the fugue from ‘Jaws,’ I had to reconstruct it. So there’s a point to keeping all of this.”
Each score has its own story, of course. It’s hard to forget the sweeping, melodramatic music of “Dracula,” with horns and strings. “Yes,” says Williams, “that music was campy and Lisztian and fun. I’ve never brought any of it out for the Pops, even though I like it a lot. Somehow it would look ridiculous on a program page — the ‘Love Theme from “Dracula.” ‘ If we ever give a Halloween concert, I just might do it!” Pressed for his own favorite, Williams says, “When people ask that question, I usually say ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ It was a picture with very little dialogue, so a major part of holding the audience’s interest fell to the composer.”
Williams says he is content with his busy bicoastal life. “My life has somehow been chiseled into two parts — I never thought it would turn out this way. It’s a tough life, physically hard, with all the travel, and with all the public conducting. But to my own surprise this has been a big part of my life, mostly because of the people I have met and the friends I have made. I particularly love Tanglewood; every summer I can leave the smog behind and come and do that beautiful thing. Lately I have been becoming enormously rededicated to the Pops. And in a way the Pops brings together the two parts of my life, when I can conduct film music. However you rate it as music, it has definitely played a part in American life.”