The Wright Touch

February 8, 2001 | Misc/General Career News

If you are a fan of the Fox-TV series American Idol, a devotee of the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, or someone who even infrequently listens to pop music, your entertainment experience, at one time or another, has been enhanced by Nigel Wright’s touch. The Grammy- and Oscar-nominated Wright is undoubtedly one of the busiest men in show business, continually flying back and forth between the United States and his native England to take care of his multiple projects as a music producer/orchestrator/arranger/director. He recently put the finishing touches on the sound recording for the long-delayed film version of Webber’s phenomenally successful stage musical The Phantom of the Opera, the international bonanza that has outlived Cats’ puny nine lives. The lavish and eagerly anticipated Warner Bros. film, the first major screen musical since 2002’s Chicago, bows on Christmas Day 2004.

He has worked professionally in the music field since he was 15 and has been a producer for 27 years. He started as a musician, then became an arranger, then a conductor, then a producer. He began his association with Webber about 13 years ago when the famed songwriter/impresario telephoned Polydor Records about a recording project he had in mind. The company put him in touch with Wright. Since that time, which was after Phantom of the Opera had opened on Broadway, Wright has worked with Webber in England and in New York and other cities on all of his theatre and film projects, creating the sound designs, as well as the original cast album recordings and soundtracks. Their first film collaboration was an adaptation of Webber’s stage smash Evita, followed by three lower-budget film versions of Webber musicals for the cable and home video markets (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Cats). For Evita, Wright earned an Oscar nomination for the sound design and shared in the victory when composer Webber and his lyricist Tim Rice won the Best Song Oscar for “You Must Love Me,” written especially for the film version.

It might seem that the endless projects from the Webber factory would keep Wright from taking other work, but that’s far from the case. He launched his own production company last year. Over the years, he has produced multiple platinum albums and more than 40 Top 20 hits, and he has worked with such noted artists as Barbra Streisand and Madonna. “My projects with Andrew take up about a third of the year,” he says. “Three months are taken up with American Idol.” For the past three seasons, he has been a key driving force on American Idol, working a grueling four-day schedule each week, preparing 10-18 songs for each show. He says, “For Idol, I do the musical arrangements, run sessions with the orchestra, conduct the orchestra with one hand and play with the other, doing my own orchestrations. Then I go into the control room to deliver the finished product. So this calls on all my skills and doesn’t let go. You find out what you’re doing on Friday, have to record it Saturday, and deliver it on Sunday night.

According to Wright, some music producers are more hands-on than others, and he has never been one to completely delegate tasks. “In the music world,” he explains, “the producer can be compared to what a director does in the film world. You handle the project from beginning to end. You supervise everything, bring in the musicians, book the orchestras, record the artists performing, work with the record companies. You are responsible from the moment someone decides to record an artist until the finished record is delivered. Some music producers, like me, are heavily involved in the day-to-day details. With Phantom, for example, there are nine people working in the music department. I oversee everything they do every day. Then I put it all together. My job includes administration, orchestration, and the creative aspects. Nine times out of 10 I find myself wishing I had more time for the creative part.”

[b]Wright faced some challenges in coaching Phantom’s actor/ singers to yield the best possible results. “With stage actors doing a recorded performance, you have to temper what they do,” he explains. “If they projected on record as they do onstage, it would sound pretty horrendous. We had a wide range of backgrounds in the cast. We have opera singers. We have Patrick Wilson, a Tony-nominated musical star. Our Phantom, Gerard Butler, was a Scottish rock ‘n’ roll singer from a band who had appeared in a few movies. The music director, Simon Lee, and I had to spend a lot of time with him to get the vocal performance we needed for this role.” Wright mentions that in a few cases, they went for actors who sang, as opposed to singers who act. “Minnie Driver is an experienced jazz singer,” he elaborates, “But she plays an opera singer, so her voice didn’t at first meet the heights of the music. In casting a movie musical, one has to make the right judgments and compromises, and work with the performers to integrate their voices effectively. Some secondary ensemble players had been in various Phantom productions onstage. We cast them because it made our lives easier. They were actor/singers who knew the material, knew where to stand and how to move. They form the underpinnings of the main ensemble.”

Wright feels that the film will capture the excitement and feel of a live stage performance. “Joel [Schumacher, the director] is a very theatrical person,” he says. “He wrote the original screenplay. For the action inside the opera house, we have a main set, and for the action outside of the opera house, such as the graveyard and the underground layer at the opera house, there are separate sets. There are seven or eight sets altogether.” Wright further explains that the Surround sound system creates the effect of being in the opera house, with sounds coming in various directions. Schumacher’s script is reportedly very faithful to the book of the musical. There is one new Webber/Rice song, which Wright says might be just in the end credits or might be within the story. There are also 20–25 minutes of new musical underscoring, but the complete original score remains intact. According to Wright, a few lyrics here and there have been revised, but otherwise the music is a fastidious re-creation of the original material.

“We were lucky to be planning this when Chicago became a big hit,” he says. “If Chicago had failed, Phantom might never have been made. I think those who are now planning musical movies have their fingers crossed that we have a hit. There’s a boom in preproduction of movie musicals right now. Whether that translates into a boom of finished and released films remains to be seen. One thing in Phantom’s favor is that so many millions of people have seen the stage show, with many repeat attendees, who love the show. If they all come to see the movie, we will have a huge hit. The stage show is still packing them in after 18 years.”[/b]

Among several pending projects for Wright are a proposed film version of Webber’s stage musical Sunset Blvd.–coming full circle, as the stage musical was based on Billy Wilder’s classic film–and the latest Webber stage musical, The Woman in White, opening this fall in London, which is a tale of damsels in distress, a wicked aristocrat, lunatic asylums, family fortunes, desolate mansions, and a sinister secret society, based on a 19th century English novel by Wilkie Collins. Wright feels that the music in this show matches the quality of Webber’s Phantom and Aspects of Love. The original Phantom, Michael Crawford, is set to star, and long-time Webber collaborator Trevor Nunn will direct.

Amid the whirlwind of professional activity constantly surrounding Wright, he occasionally needs a reality check. He asserts, “I’m so driven to keep going, two or three days off is all I can handle each month, and then I’m bored again. One night, when I came home tired and looking miserable, my wife told me, “You are doing Phantom, the biggest movie musical that will probably ever be made, and American Idol, the biggest musical show on American television. A million people would love to do your jobs. Cheer up.” Judging by his upbeat spirit and cordial manner, one senses that Wright follows this advice. BSW

Author: Les Spindle

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