Long before Charlton Heston took the reins of a chariot in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), Ramon Novarro starred as the titular character in director Fred Niblo’s silent movie Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). In that era, film scores were usually played on an organ as live accompaniment. Enter Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police.
In 2009, Copeland was tasked with scoring Ben-Hur Live, a theatrical adaptation of Lew Wallace’s original book. The show was scaled for an arena and toured in European cities like Munich, Rome, and London (heads up, Asia: it’s headed your way). Afterward, he was commissioned to create a similar experience with an edited version of Niblo’s film, only on a smaller scale. The result is MGMs Ben-Hur Composed by Stewart Copeland, taking place at the Valley Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, March 16, and at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on March 18 and 19.
“It’s all money shots—it’s a cast of thousands,” Copeland says of the movie. “The spectacle is beyond what you can do today with CGI. They hold the shot. They don’t cut around to make it look sexy. The movie is about two hours and twenty minutes, and the stage production was about 90 minutes. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the story work in 90 minutes.”
Not that Copeland simply tacked his score on to a shortened version of Niblo’s movie. “I had to adjust both to each other,” he says. “The movie version is just huge—the Pilate scene is about three times as long than in the stage version—and I’m not going to cut a frame of that. I had to write a lot of new music for that. Similarly, the chariot race is much longer. [For the arena version] we figured out that the laps would take 24 seconds each. We get to the rehearsals and the laps take 18 seconds—oh shit. The guys doing the stunts are not reading the script. They do it when they are in the right position and are not listening to the music cue. As they worked the stunts, I had to carve up the music to the way the show actually ran. I had lots of music to apply that never made it to the arena show.”
Like most of us, Copeland was very familiar with the Heston film, but he finds the earlier movie to be superior. “It was much more powerful than what was later achieved with more technology and color,” he says. “I think the lead guy is much more sympathetic. Heston was a block of wood. Novarro has passion; he is alive. He towers in strength, he cowers in fear. It’s a real performance.”
Ben-Hur does not mark Copeland’s first foray into scoring films. He was first recruited by Francis Ford Coppola to provide music for Rumblefish and has since worked with the likes of Oliver Stone (Wall Street.) “Collaborating with a living director, as the humble film composer, your mission is to seek out and understand the director’s vision,” he says. “If the director is not in the room, I have to become the director and look at what’s there on the screen. I have to discern, particularly after re-cutting the movie, what the meaning of the scene is, what the emotional arc of the scene is, and what message goes with the scene.”
As a child, Copeland was first influenced by the music of Debussy and Ravel. Later in life he took an interest in rock ‘n’ roll. So would a young Stewart be happier about his future self’s career in film or with The Police? “I think he’d be amazed that both happened,” Copeland says. “As a kid, I distinctly remember daydreaming about having a guitar. Then I wished I had an acoustic and an electric guitar. Later I added a bass guitar. I thought, ‘That’s too much. Let’s stay real here.’ I remember chiding myself for dreaming too much. I now have five electric guitars, multiple acoustic guitars, a tuba, a saxophone, a baritone saxophone, and more. I think that kid would be really happy how things turned out.”