Adapting the Great Gatsby

Listen to the play

Adapting The Great Gatsby with Zachary Andrews

By Leslie Simon

Arvada Center audiences know Zachary Andrews from his energetic roles on our stages, but this Renaissance Man is more than just an actor. His music and camera skills make him a creative force to be reckoned with, which is why we commissioned him to create a radio play of Bram Stoker’s Dracula last Fall (Zachula, if you will.)  Audiences loved this throwback theatre alternative, and kids got a taste of what entertainment was like for their grandparents when they were young.

Even now as we begin to transition into live theatre, there is still a place for this type of storytelling so we again commissioned Andrews to create an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel The Great Gatsby, which entered the public domain on January 1, 2021. Keep reading to learn about the behind-the-scenes process of creating this Jazz Age adaptation!

Q: We loved the radio play adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula you created last fall. What is your recording process for these audio adaptations?

Zachary Andrews: First of all, thank you for the kind words about Dracula!  I'd never done any audiobook, or radio play work before last year, so at this point my recording process is still mostly about discovering my recording process!  For both Dracula and Gatsby, all narration and dialogue were recorded first, and each took about five hours to knock out.  Not having to rehearse or memorize is very efficient! 

The music for Gatsby was then composed and recorded over the next 42 days.  Each day I would listen to the next chunk of narration, and when I sensed F. Scott Fitzgerald had ended a story beat, I would bounce that narration over to Cubase (a music production software workstation), where I compose music, and add sound effects.  I'd pick a tempo and time signature that felt appropriate for the energy of the scene, and from there it's all a bit of a mystery.  My orchestration is built one layer at a time, but whether it begins with a drumbeat, or a melody, or a bass line, it is all about spontaneity and inspiration.  The deadline was tight enough that I almost always had to go with my first instinct on everything, which is freeing in its own right.  I suppose my recording process could best be summed up as "when in doubt, add reverb and forge ahead."

 

What intrigued you about adapting The Great Gatsby for the Arvada Center?

ZA: In a word, Jazz.  Where I found Dracula to be a sandbox of sound design and ambience, in equal parts sci-fi and gothic horror, Gatsby is one of the crown jewels of the Jazz age.  Approaching a piece of literature that has such a distinct sound baked into its DNA means there was no futzing about wondering what musical aisle to shop in.  I was intrigued because, despite playing the piano for most of my life, jazz was a complete mystery to me.  After listening to Gatsby, jazz aficionados may (rightly) argue that jazz is still a complete mystery to me, but I was compelled by the idea of bringing the energy of Fitzgerald's world into my musical compositions.

 

Can you tell us about what that was like creating an original score?

ZA: Creating Gatsby was a crash course in all things jazz.  The instruments, the rhythms, the harmonies, the syncopation, all of it was new to me.  I think in the early part of the score you can hear me ease my way into it, as Chapter One is mostly simple chord progressions and short simple orchestrations.  But by Chapter Two, I was getting my bearings, and by the time we hit Chapter 3, I was working with 17 instruments and writing big band music. 

One thing I'm proud of is how often I was able to loop musical ideas back into the score later on, and each time I did, I found I had a deeper understanding of it, and could do something new with it.   Somewhere along the way, I saw a quote that described music simply as, "the expression of emotion as sound."  That really resonated with me.  My hope for this telling of The Great Gatsby is that my music can help heighten the emotional truth at any given moment.

 

Listen to a sneak peek of The Great Gatsby here

What is a challenge that comes up when acting for audio-only versus playing on a stage for an audience?

ZA: On stage, in a play, my job is to bring a spontaneous, emotional, kinetic life to a character, careening from one moment to the next, living and dying in the service of your audience and your scene partner.  In the recording studio, it's all burps and mouth clicks, and trying to remember what that one character sounded like five chapters ago.  There's still an ember of that on-stage imaginative life, but at the microphone it's about control and technique.  I was lucky to get to work with an experienced narrator in Sydnee Fullmer, who voiced all the female characters in the show.  Her precision with character voice set a high bar that I got to try and meet!

Andrews as Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Kate Gleason. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

 

What’s your favorite version of The Great Gatsby?

ZA: Before I started writing the adaptation, I watched and listened to every version of Gatsby I could track down.  Personally, I love the Baz Luhrmann version.  I think he's a brilliant auteur, and I think his movie captures that manic energy and neon vivacity of the novel in a way no other adaptation has. 

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