Celebrities Opt to Be Heard Rather Than Seen

From left, Carter Burwell, composer; Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter-turned-playwright; and Joel and Ethan Coen, filmmakers who have also written a play.
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
From left, Carter Burwell, composer; Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter-turned-playwright; and Joel and Ethan Coen, filmmakers who have also written a play.


Published: April 10, 2005

THE composer Carter Burwell was sitting next to his friends, the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, in the soundproofed studio of his TriBeCa apartment. Their chairs occupied a narrow aisle of floor, skirting the massive mixing console of switches, audio signals and recording devices.

"I brought you guys all together to apologize for not having written the music yet," Mr. Burwell joked. "It will be done very soon, and I hope you will all like it very much. Do you have any questions?"

The music under discussion was the score for two original one-act plays, one by the Coens, the other by Mr. Kaufman. They call them "sound plays"; intended for radio, they will get their first performances April 28 through 30 at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. The cast includes Marcia Gay Harden, Steve Buscemi, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hope Davis and John Goodman. When the evening at St. Ann's, "Theater of the New Ear," was announced on March 3, all three shows sold out within a week. The play will also be performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London on May 13, and broadcast across America this summer on Sirius Satellite Radio.

But only, that is, if Mr. Burwell finishes it. "I'm writing it as we speak," he admitted, a month before opening night.

Of course, Mr. Burwell is a pro, having composed scores for "Fargo," "Adaptation," and many more films involving the Coens and Mr. Kaufman. Still, as he said, "I thought it'd be just like writing music for a film, that in the absence of visuals, I could really pack the auditory realm with sound." Instead, he continued, "You're so dependent on the sound of the voices that it's very easy for the music to seem intrusive."

Also there's no post-production mixing and editing in the studio, as with film. Everything has to come together onstage, in real time - and with perilously little in the way of rehearsal, since the stars plan to descend en masse on New York just one week before opening night. "We've grabbed people that we know and asked them to come in and perform this essentially as a favor," Ethan Coen explained.

The project arose when an acquaintance of Mr. Burwell's asked him last spring if he would consider performing his film scores at Royal Festival Hall. "I told him I wasn't that interested, but that if the situation involved new music, that would be good," Mr. Burwell recalled. He proposed calling his film-world friends and trawling for stray script pages to set to music.

The first call Mr. Burwell made was to the Coens: "I called and asked if they might have a scene sitting around." Instead, they offered to write a sound play from scratch. Mr. Burwell then called Mr. Kaufman to see if he could fill out the evening with a second and was "amazed that he said yes."

Mr. Kaufman remembered it slightly differently. "I hemmed and hawed, and said I was interested, but I didn't commit," he said. "I was writing something else at the time, and wasn't getting anywhere, and I thought, sometimes it helps me if I have two things to work on at once. And Carter kind of bullied me."

"I didn't bully him," Mr. Burwell laughed. "Well, some."

The Coen brothers' play, "Sawbones," is about the star of a television series about a frontier veterinarian (Mr. Hoffman). The play by Mr. Kaufman, whose plots are famously convoluted, is somewhat harder to describe.

"It begins in a theater, and the very first sounds you hear are the band tuning up," Mr. Burwell explained. "And there's Muzak, because there's a play within the play that takes place within an elevator."

Mr. Burwell played a section of his music from a draft of "Sawbones," set to a rough recording of the actors in an early rehearsal.

A simple piano tune filled the studio. Voices emerged over the chords.

A woman: "Exterminators, meter readers and Jehovah's Witnesses."

A man: "And that is love. Love is constant."

A man: "Goodbye, Sawbones."

Another man: "Adios, Seņor Sawbones."

And as a woman said gravely, "I am ready for your love, Dale," strings rose above the piano melody in an elegiac swell.

Joel Coen listened thoughtfully. "Isn't that one place where we simplified and cut it down since the reading?" he asked his brother.

Ethan Coen smiled amiably. "None of us has done this before," he said, "and we don't t have a clue."