by Dan Goldwasser
He might not be a household name, but you are certainly familiar with music producer and arranger Nigel Wright's work. He's the musical director for the smash hit "American Idol". He's produced over 40 top-twenty hits, received an Oscar Nomination for Evita, and and co-produced the Oscar-winning song from that film, "You Must Love Me". As Andrew Lloyd Webber's producing partner for over 15 years, he's worked on numerous projects, including the upcoming feature film version of Phantom of the Opera. SoundtrackNet had a chance recently to talk with Nigel as they were finishing up post-production on the film at 20th Century Fox.
You are currently finishing up on Phantom of the Opera. This is a highly anticipated film, based on the smash musical. How did it come about?
Well, the musical has been 18 years in London, and about 15 in New York. The film has been in the pipeline for 15 years. The shooting script we used was the one that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher wrote 15 years ago - he was involved back then, when it was possibly going to be Sarah Brighton and Michael Crawford in the leads. Joel had just done The Lost Boys, which Andrew saw and thought was brilliant. So he called Joel up, and they met. They then traveled Europe to set the film up, but for various reasons it fell apart - and probably quite rightly so. Because in the end, 10-15 years ago with Sarah and Michael it might not have been a success! Also in those days people weren't sure if you put a film out if it might kill the sales of the stage show. However, now Phantom is one of the most successful stage shows of all time.
Even more than Cats?
I think only because it's not quite as long - so there have been more showings. I'm not positive, but it's certainly one of the more successful shows. If you compare the box office to the take of a film, it's done quite well. So we have a fan following which, if every person who has ever been to see this play goes to see this film, it will be one of the biggest box office successes as well - but one can only hope!
The downside to a fan-following is that you don't want to disappoint them. Who is this movie for, really, and will the fans be pleased?
From a musical point of view, we've stuck pretty much to the score - there are obviously 20-25 minutes of new underscore and music. When they made the original cast album, it was a pit orchestra of about 25 instruments with some extra string players. Now we are a 105-piece full symphony, with a 90-piece choir - it's big! It's up there, and it's all real. Visually, we've taken all of the various settings and put them in live settings - we have a full ballroom, an actual graveyard. All of our sets are actual locations now, which means we can have a coach ride to the graveyard, and have filmic things. Approximately 5-10% of the score has been changed from singing to dialogue, so they're not singing at you all the time. So there is a script, and occasionally we tripped out of singing into natural dialogue, and then back into singing.
You mentioned 20-25 minutes of underscore - who is writing that?
It's Andrew! It's all Andrew's stuff. There's a new feel to some of the music - there's a whole swordfight in the graveyard, but it's all him, based on stuff from the show but with a new angle on it.
Is there any sort of concern that there will be a different "sound" to the music? There was a rumor a while back about how the score would be "modernized" with electronics...
No, we're not modernizing it in any way, shape or form. Some of the patches are the same from the original show, and in some of the new music we've added some new synths, but the score is the score. And it's not always big with the full 105-piece orchestra. For the opera scenes, we cut it down to the pit size. But by the time we get to the end, it's rip-roaring.
Are there any new songs?
There is one new song which is an end title song at the moment. It's debatable - we're still in final editing. We had a new song for Evita, and we won the Oscar for that. But I always said whatever new music or song possibilities are, they will not be going into the film just for Oscar purposes. If they don't fit, and they don't work, so they won't be there. So we're in final edit with that, and there's a lot of opinion as to what works and what doesn't.
You said the project had been in the works for 15 years - what finally got it going?
What finally got it going was that Austin Shaw came on board as Executive Producer, went back to Warner Brothers, got the rights back from them, gave them American distribution, went off around the world and funded the whole movie, but there was no director in place. A lot of people like scriptwriters were coming in and doing various attempts, but Andrew felt that the best screenplay he had read was the one he did with Joel. So he rang him up, and they realized that they had a particular window to do it - including Andy Nelson, who I always mix with here at Fox.
So we backed up from then through the pre-production through everything, right through to shooting last September. I got back to America last August, and went right on to the movie. I stayed on it until now. I came back for another show here at the same time! I've been flying back and forth to London - I've been doing Saturdays and Sundays in LA, and Mondays through Fridays in London! I did that for six weeks. But everybody's schedule came together at the right time. Andrew was willing to, wanted to, and was game to do it - and didn't think it was a better time to do it than now. And of course, while we were working on it, we've had other musicals come up and be hits, like Moulin Rouge and Chicago. So the acceptance from the studios and financiers realized that if there was a time to do it, now is it.
So you're finishing up Phantom this week, even though the film doesn't come out until the winter. Do you expect much tinkering to happen?
Friday is our last day, and we print master on Saturday. I can't imagine that this film will sit in a box for five months untouched by Andrew or Joel. Joel maybe - he's going on to a new movie. But Andrew, he might be adjusting writing right up until the end. I think there will be a foreign film screening at the end of this month in London, and he might change things based on reaction.
How did the leads get picked for Phantom?
They all do their own singing. Gerard Butler was known to Joel, and he sang in a rock band as a kid - he's had the toughest journey of all to go from a rock singer to the role of The Phantom. He's had Simon Lee, who is our musical supervisor and a vocal coach work on him for the better part of a year and a half. Emmy Rossum had no problems, because she was at the Metropolitan Opera School. She's an opera singer, which is great for the role. Patrick Wilson was on Broadway - he was nominated for Oklahoma!, and he's a singer - he's the singer! It was Joel's brilliant inspiration to make the age of The Phantom appeal to a younger group - Christine is only 17, Raul in his 20s, and The Phantom in his late 20s - it's all been moved back 10 years, to give it a more modern-day appeal. And in doing so, he's picked three actors who since being cast, have all been in hit movies - and have other hit movies on the way! So there's a possibility that they they'll all be up there before we get to them! Hopefully the combined effect of their three journeys will help boost us!
Did you cut the film to the music?
All the songs in the film are cut to music, and everything in-between are cut by the director, and we filled in the holes.
Will there be any special treats for the DVD?
At the end of the shoot - it was an 87-day shoot - we were filming our own one-liners from the show. And there's the song "the Phantom of the Opera" which everybody from the rigger to the crew to the chef to the cooking crew to everybody, sang a line in. We showed it at the wrap party, and it'll be on the DVD. We've also had a lot of EPK material being filmed. They've been following us around in London and here in Los Angeles.
This isn't the only case of a film (or book) that became a musical that became a musical film. There's even talk of them doing that with The Producers. Do you have any plans for Sunset Boulevard? What about some of Andrew's other projects?
Sunset Boulevard is possible- it's in the pipeline, and it's been thought about and we've talked about it. The idea is there. It could take 15 years! Evita took 18-20 years to get made. In comparison, Phantom is on the fast track! It's funny - I read the trades and I laugh. They say "this film has been 3-, 5-, 7-years in development, what's going on?" Both the films I've done of this nature have been 18 years and 15 years! I hope I don't wait 10 years for the next one! There is talk of a full-length animated Joseph, and maybe Starlight Express - there's all sorts of things possible.
You're also the Musical Director for "American Idol". How did that come about?
I've known Simon Cowell for 22 years, because the first job he had in A&R, he decided to do an album with a dance troupe called Hot Gossip in England, who were very big. They were on a TV show, and Eileen Phillips was their choreographer. I happened to do the music for their TV show, so I got booked to make the album for Simon. He was 22-23, and I was 24-25 at the time, the first time we worked together. So over the years I've had a dozen number one's, and half a dozen hit albums. Every couple of years I had a hit with Simon. To be honest, I didn't do the first season of "American Idol" - didn't know anything about it, or even know it was happening over here until I suddenly saw Simon on TV and rang him up and had dinner with him. I was on Christmas holiday three years ago, and he was at the same place. So we sat down, had dinner, and he told me he wasn't very keen with the music first year, so I flew out and joined in and became everything from the orchestrator to the musical director to the producer to the come-what-may. From the minute they decide what they're going to sing, to the minute it appears on television it's down to me to get it there. It's a very tight schedule!
So it's not just a karaoke version of the songs?
Depends on the circumstances - sometimes it's like a karaoke version, sometimes we change it. We sit down on a Thursday and decide what it's going to be. On a Friday I have to write it; Saturday record it; Sunday mix it; Monday rehearse, and Tuesday/Wednesday go live! Thursday it starts again. And it's a 12-week cycle. So what I've been doing is writing it on a plane from London to LA. I'll have a conference call on a Thursday night to LA when they tell me what it is, key and everything, and we use iDisk computers, and they load it all up for me. I pick my laptop up, get on the plane, and score roughly on the way out on a Friday. Friday night I write it out, they copy it through the night, record the orchestra Saturday, mix Sunday, get the Sunday afternoon flight back to London, and get in an 11 in the morning, and start Phantom again.
When do you get sleep?
On the plane, when I'm not working, I'm sleeping. There's just work and sleep, really!
How is it working in London, going back and forth...
Phantom is a London- based, London financed film. We're here in the States at the end only because in the end I only trust Fox and Andy Nelson with my movie. Andy is a British guy, but he's done everything John Williams and Spielberg does, did Moulin Rouge, did Evita with me - he's a mixing engineer who knows music inside and out, so Andy and I are a great team.
Will the soundtrack release contain the new underscore?
We're doing a full double album, which is the full score to the best of our ability, and also a highlights album. Then I need to do it in German, Spanish, French and Italian!
How did you get involved with Andrew Lloyd Webber?
It was just one of those crazy 1988 or 1989 meetings where I was in my studio, and I got a phone call from the chairman of Polydor Records, who was saying that Andrew wanted to make a novelty summer single, and would I do it? I said sure, why not! It was an old record by Brian Hyland called "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini". So I sat down for a couple of days, made the record, put a demo singer on it, and then got a phone call from Andrew to come and see him. I went to dinner at his house - he's a pop fanatic, and we talked about everything, and got along brilliantly. The next day we put a TV presenter in England who is a singer on the song, and it went to number one in four countries!
At the party where we celebrated, he gave me his 1969 album of Joseph, and asked me to modernize it. So I spent two weeks doing that, went to Polydor where there was a singer called Jason Donovan, who was number one at the time. We offered him the role, and when he said yes we put him on the album, and a revival show opened in London which went to number one. So from there on in, I've done every film, every album, and everything (except Bombay Dreams) with Andrew since!
What are you working on now?
The next six months entails Andrew's new musical, Woman in White. I have a new show with Simon Cowell called "The X-Factor" which will be on British TV. The double and single albums of Phantom, four foreign language versions which I'm supervising and overseeing, the Christmas show of "American Idol", and then we start "American Idol" again in January. So my year is gone!
When did you last get to take a vacation?
Last Christmas. Every year I go away on the 16th of December, and get back on the 6th of January. It's a stupid life, it's a stupid existence. My kids are all grown up and away at University, so my wife is here at the moment. She stays for a couple weeks - I get home at 10pm, and leave at 7am the next morning. That's six, maybe seven days a week. Then she gets fed up and goes home - then gets fed up at home, and comes back! We quite often go for two months without a day off, and then we get a day or two.
Do you like what you do?
I wouldn't do anything else. I wouldn't say I like it - I would say I love it! I absolutely adore it. Some days you might wish you've never seen a studio, or particular director or producer or executive. The beginning of a project is great, and the end is great - but the middle is like wading through mud!
Phantom of the Opera will be released December 6 in London, and December 16, 2004 in the USA.
Special Thanks to Brenda Falitz and Marilyn Merrifield for her help in arranging this interview.