Child's play it isn't

Composer David O made his name in L.A. with his sophisticated and dramatic work, and now he's writing for a much younger crowd.

By Rob Kendt
Special to The Times

February 27, 2005

"Don't be confused by the notes," quips the pianist to a cast of six actor/singers in a rehearsal room at the Taper Annex.

The performers laugh, but they recognize the truth behind the joke. The musical they're rehearsing may be based on a children's book, George Saunders' "The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip," and produced by the Mark Taper Forum's youth-oriented P.L.A.Y. program. But there's nothing elementary about the score by David O, who has emerged in recent years as one of the region's busiest theater composers and music directors.

Tricky time signatures, four-part harmonies over diminished chords and a nonsense language devised by lyricist Doug Cooney for the "gappers" — tribble-like creatures who latch parasitically onto milk-giving goats in the town of Frip — are among the score's unique challenges.

With last year's rock musical "The Legend of Alex," another P.L.A.Y. project, O and Cooney's extra mandate for the cast was that they had to be able not only to sing, act and dance but also "deliver a convincing rock 'n' roll performance," Cooney explains.

Rock is a reference point for O's music, but not in the way one might expect. Yes, he music-directed the L.A. premiere of "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World," a quirky outsider-music paean by Gunnar Madsen and Joy Gregory, and he adapted Gilbert & Sullivan's "Duel" into a driving progressive-rock score.

But while the bright, nervy tones of "Gappers" don't sound like rock, they bear traces of a composition process that, as writer Stephen Schiff once observed of Stephen Sondheim's songcraft, resembles the approach of rock or blues musicians: Strongly defined accompaniment patterns dictate a song's rhythmic and harmonic structure, over which melodies are written.

"I come at everything with a rock 'n' roll mind-set, of starting with simple patterns and really hitting them — really attacking the music," says the 34-year-old O, a tall, bearded man with long hair swept back Byronically from an imposing brow. " 'Gappers' definitely doesn't have a rock sensibility, but the rhythms throughout are based on rock rhythms."

The other key ingredient in O's theater music is his background as an actor. O — who got his degree in theater from California Institute of the Arts — begins composing by essentially getting into character.

"My first step in writing a song is usually very kinetic: sitting at the piano and putting myself into that moment of the story and improvising at the piano," O explains. "I try to find what the song is about: What is the character going through? If I was acting the song, what's the juiciest moment here?"

The result is surprisingly dramatic, says Elizabeth Tobias, who has both worked with O as a performer (on "Duel" and "The Shaggs") and hired him as a producer (on "Liberty!" and the upcoming "Atalanta").

"He has this way of playing with the pulse of the music, then resolving that in a way that you wouldn't have thought of but which is very moving," she says. "I don't want to sound too pretentious about it, but in the same way that iambic pentameter taps into the rhythm of breathing and the heartbeat, something about the way David unfolds the rhythms under the song seems to be about the emotion of the song in a way that I'm not used to."

Music was a backbeat in O's life long before he realized it should take the lead. His mother was a piano teacher, and though he resisted piano lessons himself, he absorbed a lot of music in their Salinas, Calif., household: "My mom's music theory books were [my] coloring books."

Then he caught the high school acting bug and did summer internships at Salinas' Western Stage. Later at CalArts, he focused on acting and directing.

"He's an excellent actor, and he's got a great eye for staging," says Matt Almos, a CalArts colleague who now heads the irreverent theater troupe Burglars of Hamm. As a member of the Burglars' predecessor, an improv/sketch group called Someone Stole Our Name, O acted a little but mainly served as the group's "musical guru," he says. It was Almos, O recalls, who in 1997 told him about a composer-librettist workshop sponsored by Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects and urged O to apply.

"I was like, 'What, as a performer?' " says O. "And he said, 'No, you dummy, as a composer!' And I was like, 'I'm not a composer!' And he said, 'You totally are a composer. You write for your band, you've written for all these shows.' He laid it out for me. And I was like, 'Hmm, maybe you've got a point.' "

Beginning to branch out

The workshop, led by Ben Krywosz of Minneapolis' Nautilus Music-Theater, was both a "boot camp" for O and a validation. It's also the place where O's network of contacts began to grow: Actress-singer Marnie Mosiman later brought him on board for the L.A. Master Chorale's Voices Within program, which teaches local grade schoolers the craft of songwriting, and for the L.A. Philharmonic's Summer Sounds at the Bowl series, which introduces young audiences to world music and culture. Between these two educational jobs and the P.L.A.Y. (Performing for Los Angeles Youth) shows, does O worry that he may become pigeonholed as a kids' composer?

"I can't say that I'm worried about it, because it's been a huge part of my career," O says. "A lot of great composers have been very child-focused. Leonard Bernstein did huge amounts of educational stuff."

Still, as his own creative voice emerges, he and Cooney are starting to brew other projects.

"I really feel like I'm at a delicate yet really exciting point in my career now," O says. "I'm in the position to pitch some of my own shows, to go to some of the people I've been working with and say, 'This is what I'd like to work on next. How can we make it happen?' "

Still, his educational and youth theater gigs are what have sustained him financially in Los Angeles, where local theaters' creative resourcefulness typically exceeds their financial resources. He concedes that his next logical step may be in the vicinity of New York. But O — who lives in Atwater Village with his yoga therapist wife, Michelle East, and their son, Caleb, 4 — is in no hurry to leave L.A.

"This is a great place to work on new musicals," he says. "There's something about the rawness that L.A. actors bring — the passion, the drive, and the emotional accessibility — which I'm hooked on. I'm in love with that sort of acting."

You don't have to look far to see what he's talking about: The tall, gangly charmer Jamey Hood, the lead in "Gappers of Frip" and one of the stars of "The Shaggs," is an accomplished singer who delivers her songs with a disarmingly conversational tone, and who looks more like a Robert Altman actor than a Broadway baby. O calls her "my ideal kind of performer," whose heartfelt approach to his score "actually taught me about its emotional content."

O's surname, incidentally, is Ossmann. He started using O around 2000, in part because there's a David Ossman in Firesign Theatre, but mainly because of a Buddhist notion that impressed him.

"I think of the O less as the letter 'O' and more as the number zero, in terms of the concept of the wholeness that's in the emptiness of things," he says, echoing Mahayana Buddhist teaching about sunyata, or emptiness.

The very persistent David O's calendar is now anything but empty.


'The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip'

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: Opens March 5. Call for times.

Ends: March 19

Price: $10 to $20

Contact: (213) 628-2772 or