An Interview with Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma

SCR Staff
 | Feb 07, 2019
Deborah Wicks La Puma

Deborah Wicks La Puma

Meet Deborah Wicks La Puma

Deborah Wicks La Puma is a composer, music director, orchestrator and choral conductor. Her work for adults and children has been seen by audiences around the globe, from Singapore to Australia to the East Room of the White House. Her awards include the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, the Robert M. Golden Award, a National Endowment for the Arts New American Works Grant, a Helen Hayes Award, two Parents’ Choice Awards, an iParenting Media Award and an LA Ovation Award nomination. Her work has been commissioned and premiered at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Cornerstone Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, the Alliance Theatre, Boston Court Pasadena, Childsplay, Imagination Stage and Olney Theatre. Wicks La Puma has arranged music for a number of young audiences productions including The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny, Ken Ludwig’s Tom Sawyer and Joan Cushing’s Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, Miss Nelson is Missing and Petite Rouge. SCR audiences may remember Wicks La Puma’s music in Ella Enchanted, which was produced as a part of its Theatre for Young Audiences series in 2017. The production (with a script adapted by playwright Karen Zacarías) was directed by Casey Stangl, who also directs Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed:The Rock Experience.

In this interview, composer Deborah Wicks La Puma answers some questions about collaborating with playwright Mo Willems, the music in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and what the story says to her.

South Coast Repertory: How did you get involved in this adaptation of Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed?

Deborah Wicks La Puma: This is my third project with author and playwright Mo Willems, after first working with him on the musical adaptation of his book Knuffle Bunny. Happily, Mo liked my tunes, so he invited me to write Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play, based on his popular books series. We were then excited about creating a rock show about naked mole-rats, as that seemed fun, silly and right up our alley. Now we are working on our fourth show, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus: The Musical!

How would you describe the music in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed?

The music is a celebration of classic rock—I consider it almost a primer for young audiences who might not be familiar with the sounds of some my favorite artists. With nods to David Bowie, Queen, Heart, Pink Floyd and Jim​i Hendrix, I hope to capture the energy of rock to tell the story of a sweet mole-rat who is a little different.

As a composer, how do you collaborate with a lyricist? What comes first, the music or the words?

I have been lucky to work with a number of amazing librettist/book writers in my career and each collaboration is different. But we always begin talking through the story and the characters, and then what the world might “sound” like. Often, we will create a playlist of music for inspiration and use it as a point of reference for energy, tempo or vocal range. Mo has a very strong sense of the characters going into each of these projects—since he has already created a book around them—and usually creates a draft of the lyrics first before I start playing around with them. Sometimes the lyrics are fully formed, and the music just seems to flow out of them. Other times, I will start using only catches of phrases that ring in my ear, and then create a musical structure that we rewrite the lyrics into. My favorite part of the job is not to just set the words onto a series of notes, but to see how I can spin them around using all the transformative power of music to create something new and exciting.

In addition to writing the music, you also serve as the production’s music director. What do you do in that role?

As the music director, I teach the songs to the actors, coach them to sing their best and work with them as an ensemble to make everything sound good! I love to work on things like dynamics, clean musical cutoffs and harmonies.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed?

I hope audiences will enjoy this sweet story told in a sassy way— that being your true self is a rockin’ idea. Be a little different and celebrate by singing out loud—why not?

Learn more about Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and buy tickets.