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By Brian Robin

The Musical Muses of Messé

Director David Ivers

You won’t think of Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan when you hear Daniel Messé’s soaring score for Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical. You probably won’t think of Willy Wonka or Mary Poppins either.

But those musical and theatrical influencers are present every time Messé puts pen to paper. They’ve been part of the composer’s DNA since he was a kid, growing up in East Lansing, Michigan with his parents’ amazing record collection keeping him company.

“I got all the rock, pop and folk music from my dad and all the theatre from my mom,” he said, ticking off bands, along with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Janis Joplin and Peter, Paul and Mary. “Basically, I learned about theatre from listening to cast albums and movie musicals. Those were the only sources I had. To this day, for me, some of the most influential pieces are the movies of Willy Wonka and Mary Poppins. …

“You learn something from everyone. Nobody’s going to listen to the music here and think Led Zeppelin is a huge influence on me, but all authentic music makes me feel a certain way. When I write music, I’m always trying to create an authentic emotional experience.”

Messé did that with his score to Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical, which he’s collaborating on with playwright Craig Lucas and lyricist Sean Hartley. The centerpiece to SCR’s 60th season, Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical runs April 5-May 4 on the Segerstrom Stage.

One of the first words out of SCR Artistic Director David Ivers’ mouth when he mentions Messé is “brilliant.” One of the production’s key songs—“Age of Anxiety”—grabs you and stays with you for the way Messé, Hartley and Lucas capture the mood of not only the characters on stage, but of the times we live in. Ivers, who directs Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical, rhetorically asked, “Is there a better title for a song in 2024?”

“When we wrote ‘Age of Anxiety,’ we really figured out the show had a magic to it and a real sense of danger to it,” Messé said.

“I think this audience is going to hear strains and say, ‘I know, I KNOW that idea, but I can’t put my finger on where.’ Dan has the ability to do that and make the score entirely his own,” Ivers said.”

Messé did that with this production. He did it with Amelíe, joining forces with Lucas and co-lyricist Nathan Tysen to produce the musical adaptation of that film. It debuted on Broadway in 2017, then went to London’s West End, where it earned three Olivier Award nominations and a Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theatre Album. And he did it with The Public Theater’s production of Twelfth Night.

Messé got the Twelfth Night project in another counterintuitive manner. Chasing a dream, he went to New York to write musicals in the 1990s—when there wasn’t a market for musicals on Broadway. So Messé started the band, Hem, which allowed him to get his music out to an audience. They produced 1,000 copies of their first album and passed them out to friends and friends of friends.

It worked. Messé and his bandmates arrived at Fez in New York City for their first gig to find a line around the block. This drew the attention of a small UK record label, Setanta, who signed the band and watched their debut album Rabbit Songsseize the UK rock market. Re-released in the U.S., Hem’s work was picked up by Dreamworks in the States. After NPR featured the band on “All Things Considered,” they reached No. 1 on Amazon Music and a theatre producer who heard his work approached Messé with a wonderful, open-ended offer…

“He asked me if there’s anything you want to write, because I want to produce you,” Messé said. “That’s how I found my way back into theatre. …

“One interview made my career.”

In 2017, when Lucas brought him in to help unstick a thorny patch in Prelude to a Kiss, The Musical that Hartley and the original collaborator couldn’t navigate. Messé and Hartley found the path and shortly afterward, SCR commissioned the work.

“My goal is to truly serve the drama. This was Craig’s baby and he was letting us adapt it and helping us adapt it,” Messé said. “You feel a great sense of responsibility coming into it as a collaborator. You want to honor the writer who is allowing you to work with this.

“Sean had the idea and I really wanted to serve both their visions. That was my first priority. After that, I wanted to write songs that are heaped with big melodies and real emotion in them and I think we accomplished that. We want people singing when they leave the show.”

His rock voice and his theatre voice may not speak to each other directly, but they occupy adjoining, prime real estate in Messé’s creative brain.

“They’ve always been separate for me, the theatre voice and this other, pure song voice,” he said. “But they definitely feed off one another and I think people who are fans of Hem will like the theatre scores and vice-versa.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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