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A Fresh Take on Gershwin: Café Variations Arranger/Orchestrator Rachel Grimes

Emerson dramaturgy student Tierra Bonser interviews Rachel Grimes, Orchestrator & Arranger for Café Variations.

Self-described as an arranger and orchestrator for Café Variations, Rachel Grimes has been working hand-in-hand with director Anne Bogart, as well as the many other members of the acclaimed SITI Company, to develop the music for this new musical production. Having participated in Viewpoints training many summers, Rachel Grimes contributed music to several previous SITI productions. She also tours the U.S. and Europe as a solo pianist, and recently with chamber ensemble Orchestra Kandinskij. Her recordings have been used in numerous films, dance and theatre productions.

When planning for Café Variations began, the group knew that they wanted to use the works of George and Ira Gershwin as their musical scoring and inspiration for the piece; the infinite romance and timelessness of the music made it a perfect choice. It was then up to Grimes and her team to discover how and why songs like “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Can’t Take That Away From Me” fit into the world of the play and in what ways those songs might be reinterpreted and presented in a fresh way.

“The intimidation of saying something new with Gershwin’s work,” has been Grimes’ biggest challenge thus far, but then again, that is the challenge everyone on this production is facing; in fact, it’s the whole point. Take a café—almost as familiar a setting as the home; take love and loss and reunion; take the, “Is this seat taken?” conversations—all of these things that are familiar to us, but put them together, flip them around and, as an audience, we see the daily, the commonplace, the “I’ve heard it all before,” in a whole new, important and vital way. The same goes for the music. Tweak the arrangement of Gershwin’s song or treat the lyrics as text and you’ve discovered a nuance that perhaps wasn’t there before.And this is exactly what Grimes has been doing. As part of her process she says she doesn’t even look at notes on the page until she has the lyrics completely in the palm of her hand. When she feels comfortable with content, she then approaches the numerous versions and interpretations that are available of Gershwin’s work to try to get a feel for different flavors and colors of the music. Finally, as a pianist, Grimes sits at the piano and improvises the music on her own, letting her mind free-associate with each part of the score. From the way she described it, the process doesn’t sound unlike the way an actor becomes familiar with a script, finding the breaths and the pauses and the moments of discovery. 

“Part of the work is discovering a way of telling a specific story with music that can stand alone, but also one that heightens, informs and inspires the work on stage,” Grimes said, and “Rhapsody in Blue” was chosen to inform the musical as a whole; this composition of Gershwin’s is “full of ideas—seven or eight themes, six sections and follows those ideas in a linear form,” and so each section of the composition informs staging and arranging for the various movements of the script and story. While some arrangements will be similar to their original scoring, others are drastically changed in composition and are interpreted in different song standards, like 1920’s or 1950’s styles.

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