July 25th, 2008
by Penny McQueen
April 23, 2007
What happened to music scores? On The Office or Boston Legal, the hand-held camera giggles and zooms for close-ups of coffee mugs and cigars, if we’re lucky an ironic blast of music before the actors raise an eyebrow and we’re off to the next scene.
Some time in the 90’s we overdosed on Very Special Episodes that ended with a once-upon-a-time hit single. If I had to listen to Green Day’s Time of Your Life yet again while the camera lingered on tear-stained faces, I planned to feed my remote to the dog. But these days I hear chair scrapes, keyboard clicks, and rustling paper on my surround-sound system, the same background noise I work in 10-plus hours a day.
The pendulum has swung, folks. Gritty realism is in.
But here’s the problem. Music – good music – has the ability to transcend reality. With the right score, our emotions are engaged at a level we don’t intellectually parse. Enter the genius of Harry Sukman. In The High Chaparral, his music combined with rattling windmills, boot heels scuffling through sand, and redeye whiskey sloshing in bottles to add a layer of emotional richness that tied us to the hearts of every character in a way that flat realism could not.
- It’s a composer’s job to know when to help a scene. You can make a suggestion, you can strengthen a character with a strong theme, you can soften a character with a beautiful melody. The real question is: Is it valid? If it intrudes, or if it’s obtrusive, even as a composer, I’d rather that the music not be there at all. Sometimes I disagree with a producer or director about where music should go. To prove my point I say, But silence is music too – it really is. –Harry Sukman
“My father gave each character his or her own theme, thereby identifying them,” Susan Sukman McCray said, discussing Harry Sukman’s famous score for The High Chaparral . “All the actors loved having their own theme. Even the guest stars had one. Greg Walcott (No Bugles, No Drums, and Auld Lang Syne) had a special theme and he recalls a story about my father coming to him about it. You should ask Greg about it at the reunion.”
One of the most recognizable western themes of all time, David Rose’s energetic All For You introduced each week’s show, while Sukman’s interpretive themes scored the episodes. “My father’s old, dear friend Joe Lubin wrote the lyrics for the title theme, Johnny Rondo, as well as any other music where lyrics were added. He also was responsible for having the only LP album recorded with music from the show. It was done in London and Joe went there to oversee, and Joe was responsible for the songbook that was published.”
- To know when to help a scene is the composer’s job, but to know why is the step beyond because then music is created to become an integral part of the character. –Harry Sukman
Until The High Chaparral is released on DVD, we can’t hear these themes in all their restored glory. But even on worn out tapes, the craftsmanship of each piece is clear. If you’re lucky enough to have a many-times watched tape, close your eyes and listen to Victoria’s Theme. Could this music be for anyone except a heartbreakingly beautiful woman? The rollicking Latino rhythms of Manlito’s Theme so perfectly capture an exuberant caballero, it sounds like a traditional Mexican folk song. Sukman’s work in Chaparral’s
The Champion of the Western World garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Composition; find out why by turning off the video and concentrating on the audio. The evocative music brings the action to life without pictures.
Although we know him best for his work on the story of our favorite Arizona ranch, Harry Sukman’s remarkable life reached far beyond Chaparral. A child music prodigy, he debuted as a concert pianist at the age of 12. While still a pre-teen he attended the Metropolitan College of Music. Do yourself a favor and rent a copy of Song Without End: The Story of Franz Liszt (Columbia, 1960), the Academy Award winner for best musical score. While you’re at it, pick up copies of Fanny (Warner Bros., 1961) and The Singing Nun (MGM, 1966); both received Oscar nominations for Sukman’s musical score.
- I have found no contradiction whatsoever between my background as a classical concert pianist and my writing music. In composing music for many westerns, I believe the folklore of America and its music are our precious heritage and are no less important than anything we have inherited from European culture. The American people sense this, and that is why they so avidly patronize historic western entertainment, even in fictional form. –Harry Sukman
One CD of his work is readily available. Harry’s Piano ( www.harryspiano.com), the book about his early childhood written by daughter Susan McCray, includes a CD with two of his compositions performed by him. Be sure to bring your copy to the reunion, as Susan offered, “If anyone has or will be purchasing Harry’s Piano, I’ll be delighted to autograph the book while at the reunion.”
Sukman albums are still available, and will soon be joined by another. “I am producing with Vincent Falcone (Sinatra’s musical director and my father’s dear friend) a CD of Harry Sukman music for piano and trio. I plan on having some of The High Chaparral themes performed,” Susan said, adding she promises to alert HC fans when the CD is released. Fans can also hear her father’s music on her weekly radio show, Getting to Know You With Susan McCray. “My theme on KSAV is the theme from the MGM series The Eleventh Hour played by Vinnie and trio at the dedication of The Harry Sukman Foyer at the University of Hartford.” Listen to the cool, jazzy introduction every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Pacific time and 9:30 p.m. Eastern with a repeat performance on Thursdays at 3:30 p.m. Pacific and 6:30 p.m. Eastern on KSAV.org. Previously aired shows (including interviews with Henry Darrow, Manolito Montoya, and Don Collier, Sam Butler, from The High Chaparral) can be heard in the show’s archives on the KSAV.org site.
Although successful in a tough business, Sukman remained gracious, often sharing screen credit. “He was, indeed, kind & generous and my mother was exceptionally beautiful & talented as well,” Susan said. In addition to The High Chaparral, you’ll hear his Golden Globe and Emmy nominated work in over two hundred episodes of classic television series such as Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, The Eleventh Hour, Laramie, Wagon Train, The Cowboys, The Virginian, Tales of Wells Fargo, Owen Marshall, Gentle Ben and many more. Of special interest is his Emmy nominated work in the original Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. For a generation, Sukman’s music provided a common cultural backdrop.
When David Dortort asked Harry Sukman to help craft the world of Cannons and Montoyas, he was bringing not only the best talent, but also a man he respected as a dear friend. Susan McCray recalled, “David and Rose Dortort are family to me – they were best friends with my parents Harry and Francesca. When I speak with either David or Rose, I feel like my mom and dad are with me. The love between David and Harry was not only for their mutual admiration of talent, it was for their feelings for each other as special people. When visiting our house for a gathering or a social visit, my father would sit down at his Steinway Grand Piano and the first thing David would say was, ‘Harry you know what I want to hear,’ and my father would play his beautiful Montoya Theme from High Chaparral. David would tear up and come over to give my dad a hug and he’d say, “Harry, that’s beautiful’.”
- The music had to become part of the actor’s face, the writer’s words, the director’s staging, the cameraman’s lighting, the character’s wardrobe, the dressing of the set, the sound man’s magic fingers. –Harry Sukman
Harry Sukman, during a recording session for The High Chaparral
Victoria’s Theme contains an interesting bit of trivia. The original music in the pilot was replaced by the melodious one we typically associate with Victoria Montoya de Cannon. As he continued to compose for each episode, Harry Sukman built much of the emotional depth of the characters we love. Susan recalled, “He was very proud of that show and David Dortort loved his music, as did the entire cast and crew. One of my fondest memories was during a party at our home. Of course there was always music playing. My mother on the organ or piano, my father on the piano. This one particular New Year’s party, Leif Erickson got up to sing, my father accompanied him. It was the greatest rendition of Old Man River I’ve ever heard. Very moving and quite dramatic. Wish I had a recording of it.”
So do we all.