Musician of Myth
Number 243, October 1997
Mythological Mayhem' is my middle name now," notes composer Joseph LoDuca with pride and it's a name he won't be able to shake off any time soon. He believes the odds are very good that he'll soon be scoring yet another mythic series, Young Hercules, a prequel to Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. That's in addition to providing the music for all the episodes of Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess for at least two more full seasons.
While the score for Young Hercules still contains all the dramatic elements he has established over the last three years, the composer feels that the producers are now trying to target a younger audience for the proposed half-hour series. Its action sequences are powered by a driving percussion beat; there are even melodies played on electric guitars.
If all this sounds too bizarre to work. maybe you weren't paying attention these last few seasons. Half the fun on the two ongoing series is derived from their eclectic mix of styles. "For Hercules, we originally wanted to go more ethnic and exotic," says LoDuca. "Herc is so good and true, so much the traditional hero, that the ethnic approach really didn't work unless the situation around him specifically called for it. Herc is the main event, the entree, and we put the exotic spice around him. In general, the music on his series tends to the more conventional. That's what the action and humor requires. This was a precedent we established in the four two-hour movies."
While Bulgarian seems an odd language to choose for vocal effects on a series about a Greek warrior, the composer believes the decision was justified. "Bulgarian was a match made in heaven for Xena. We wanted to create a powerful image and I know of no other singing that's more powerful than that style. It's from the chest, it doesn't go very high. For that first music for Xena, I didn't contract any violins in the orchestra. It's all violas and below. It was a conscious effort to create the most powerful sound for a woman that we could.
"Actually, our producer Rob Tapert was aware of this kind of music and we were talking about Middle Eastern music early on. It was a pretty broad discussion. In the first two-hour movie, Hercules and the Amazon Women, we had hired some gospel singers to do some stuff that was Eastern European in intent, but it wasn't as specific as the Bulgarian style."
Like the actors and crew, LoDuca works outside Hollywood. "I'm based in Michigan. I write all the music here and commute as needed. When you think about it, it affects the music. I'll be having a conversation with Lucy Lawless across the international dateline about a music cue she'll be singing and, at the same time, if I have an orchestra date in Utah, I'm e-mailing my last cue to the copyist so when I arrive for the date, it will be on the stands. I can also send my music over the phone lines directly to the dubbing stage at the studio."
The scoring process is rather simple. "Basically, I have a week between shows," he explains, "but very often there are two-show weeks. That's how the schedule works out; sometimes during the peak periods the shows tend to bunch up.
"I very rarely start with a script, unless there's a need for music to shoot to. For example, in the episode 'Ulysses,' Xena meets up with Ulysses [John D'Aquino] on his way back home to Ithaca, and the Sirens attempt to woo the mariner. He's about to jump ship and Xena has to outsing the Sirens. That had to be written ahead of time."
LoDuca admits, however, it doesn't usually work that way. In an early Xena, for example, Lawless performed a song for a funeral sequence. "The story of that song, 'Burial,' is very interesting. That came from a third generation audiocassette. We were aware from the beginning that Lucy could sing and Rob was looking for a way to involve that in the show. This was a song that, as I understand, she invented. The idea was that this was to become a melody every time you had a holy burial pyre scene. They first tried to record it on the set. Then, they took her into a studio after a long day of shooting. It turned out the best performance we had was on this cassette. So, I did everything I could, audio-wise, to clean it up. That's what's on the soundtrack album. It was really a small miracle it all worked out, but that was the best performance we had at that time. She sang it again, live on set, for Serena's [Sam Jenkins] funeral on that Hercules episode, 'Judgment Day.' We scored the music behind it that time."
"There's so much music for each episode, about 36 minutes for a 45-minute program. We use more music than any show I'm aware of. Everybody has the rhythm down and, in some ways, the pressure's off me, but not off the writers, who really have to keep it all fresh. In turn, they inspire me to new approaches to the music. You get into a mode where you're comfortable experimenting."
Composing themes for each character not only offers LoDuca a time-saving shortcut. but some genuine creative fun. "Especially with characters like Bruce Campbell's Autolycus, and Falaffell, the fast food visionary [Paul Norell]," LoDuca admits. "We also wrote an actual song for Joxer, played by Ted Raimi. I brought in an all-male chorus on 'For Him the Bell Tolls' to sing the original version of 'Joxer the Mighty.' Those things really help take the burden off. Every once in a while, though, there are episodes with situations you've never seen before-or a new dilemma or torment they're putting our heroes through-and you must start from scratch.
"In some ways, the lack of time is very liberating," he adds. "You can't get too hung up. You have to go with your first impulse and stick by it. That can result in really great things, but it can work against you, too. The only regret I have is that sometimes I write some wonderful cues and think, 'This would sound so great with an orchestra. Too bad I have to use electronics this week.' It's the reality of modern television,"
Prodded to reveal his favorite episode, LoDuca can only groan, "Boy, that's hard to say. We're now looking at about 64 episodes. This past season there was 'Destiny,' the episode where Xena fell in love with, and was jilted by Julius Caesar [Karl Urban]. That was different in tone and very nice in particular."
On both series, the composer admits he must pay extra close attention to his handling of the comedy. "It occasionally reaches the level of the Three Stooges," he also notes. "I've tried to take the high road musically, not play against it, but not to 'Mickey Mouse' it, play it like a cartoon. I play across it and let the music put the whole thing in an intelligent context.
"However, if they get real goofy and cross the line, then I've just got to get in on the act too! When Aphrodite [Alexandra Tydings] appears out of that seashell and wind surfing, how can you not have her big, sexy entrance accompanied by beach music? You really must play on those things. Let the audience in on the joke. This past season with Xena, we did dance club music for the den of the Bacci vampires in 'Girls just Wanna Have Fun,' and the 'Miss Amphipolis' beauty contest was a tribute to lounge music. Comedy is an essential theme in both series, but in terms of inside jokes, the humor has these shows becoming the Rocky and Bullwinkle of their time!"
LoDuca's creative freedom owes as much to his talent as it does to a long-standing relationship with producers Tapert and Raimi (and even actor Campbell) that goes back 10 years. "The longer you work with somebody, the more you develop a common language," LoDuca explains. "You build a rapport and develop a shorthand way of communicating. We discussed where we wanted to go initially with Hercules, but it has evolved to where I know what it needs. If I have questions, I try to ask them up front. I don't cross certain lines. You've never heard a note played on a piano on Hercules or Xena, and you probably never will. It just seems totally wrong. We've done so many of these shows that the music editor Phillip Tallman and I spot most of them ourselves, deciding where to put the music. We pretty much know what's required. That's a different situation than on any other series."
"Then, I was approached by a producer who was involved in raising money for Evil Dead, Sam's first feature. So, he introduced me to Sam and Rob and we hit it off. I was very impressed with their wacky chutzpah and they, I suppose, were impressed with how strange I could get the music within my limited resources.
"This all happened in Michigan," LoDuca continues. "They were all local boys who made good by making this cult hit. I stayed behind in Michigan and put together some jazz groups until the moment I went to work for them full time. I also did a lot of writing for commercials over the years because the car companies are here, so there's a big advertising industry in town. That enabled me to amass an arsenal of equipment and stay in the field, occasionally working for Rob and Sam when they had something going, or on other projects, films and documentaries."
LoDuca recalls his work with Raimi and others. "After Evil Dead" he says, "I did The XYZ Murders with them. It was a comedy eventually released as Crimewave. I did big band music for it. Then, I did Moontrap for Shapiro Glickenhaus, which starred Bruce and Walter Koenig, and Lunatics: A Love Story, with Bruce and Ted. I did a film with a young French director named Christophe Gans, Necronomicon, which is out on video. It's a trilogy of H.P. Lovecraft short stories-a very romantic mini-opera because there's very little dialogue. He called me because he was a big fan of the Evil Dead pictures."
As Raimi and Tapert stretched their creative wings in Hollywood, LoDuca missed out on several projects. For Darkman, they turned to Danny Elfman. but eventually the duo brought LoDuca back for the third chapter in the Evil Dead trilogy, Army of Darkness. "I'm not really sure what happened on Army of Darkness," LoDuca says, failing to recall why Elfman had composed only the "March of the Dead" theme. "I think that sequence was a montage Sam had already created. He and Danny are friends and Sam asked Danny to write that particular scene. That was before I was contracted to do the picture, so that's the way it stayed."
LoDuca was then quickly pressed into service to score M.A.N.T.I.S., a TV movie pilot co-written by Raimi with Batman scripter Sam Hamm. "I did that in about 10 days. Sam was off directing The Quick and the Dead [scored by Alan Silvestri], and Rob was off developing Hercules. There was no spotting session to discuss the music in detail Music was an afterthought on that pilot, they just handed it to me. There wasn't enough time to crystallize the concepts. It was evident that you had to cover the superhero aspect and you could put in some African reflection or black culture references. That was important," LoDuca notes. "There was a supposed to be a gang fight and when I scored it with heavy rap music, they said,'No!' That definitely was not wanted. It made it all seem too real. For whatever reasons, Rob and Sam weren't involved after the pilot. So therefore, everything went by the wayside."
American Gothic called upon LoDuca to dig deep into his bag of musical tricks. "A lot depended on how we were treating the bad guy, the evil sheriff, that week. Bad things would happen, but you never actually saw him doing them. The music was, at times, very understated, but toward the season's end, it blew up to Gothic proportions of good vs. evil. I had to play that whole range. It's all set in the South, so I had that Southern twang, the Christian music references, contemporary scoring and sound design techniques. I built up a lot of strange sounds that I now use on Hercules and Xena. There were some real terrifying moments."
Many compositions for Gothic were in the Evil Dead vein, but without the humor. LoDuca found himself creating depraved, twisted lullabies, like the theme for Sutpen the Junkman, or the horrific death prayer of the Potato Boy. So important was the music to American Gothic that, right until the final episode, the music budget wasn't skimped on. LoDuca was able to assemble a chorus and orchestrate a "Carmina Burana"-style cue.
LoDuca is amused when he finds that "while children embrace Hercules and Xena wholeheartedly, some adults admit they're a guilty pleasure. The fans are very intense. I wasn't aware of the audience we were reaching until Sam invited me to a FANGORIA convention."
More recently, LoDuca finished scoring another spin-off, the animated musical adventure Hercules & Xena: The Battle for Mount Olympus (an October direct-to-video release). "Lucy's singing at least one of the three songs. Universal Animation worked with a particular songwriter beforehand, and they had to be recorded way up front, so I wasn't involved with them. My score is still orchestral, but I wanted to see what I could do to make it more interesting.
"This whole side trip to Middle Eastern music has gone from a hobby to a passion. Hercules and Xena aren't like anything else out there, although there are some TV series that have tried to copy our format. It's still a great ride and I'm glad I'm on it. The shows are contracted through the middle of 1999, and I intend to stick this out. I've learned the plot arc for this season, and they're going to find some new and interesting ways to torment and torture our heroes. And," says Joseph LoDuca, "that means more interesting music for me to write."