Mark E. Gifford is known throughout the Midwest as a keyboard virtuoso whose concerts at Springfield High School’s restored Orpheum Theater pipe organ are always well attended. But through Feb. 15, at Hoogland Center for the Arts, he plays a piano role as composer and musician in the Springfield Theatre Centre production of Our American Cousin.
Belleville native son Gifford is one of a rare breed who learned keyboard first
on the organ, later the piano. His teacher was Stan Khan (pronounced “Can,”) a legend at nearby St. Louis’ Fox Theater and a popular guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. “He was a major influence on my (learning) silent movie music,” Gifford says, “and that genre makes for an easy transition to playing for the stage melodrama.
There, you actually get to hear the people, and in a silent movie you just
watch them on the silver screen.”
Then a full-time salesman for Rodgers Church Organs, he moved to the Capital City from Belleville area in 1993 and began playing the restored organ at SHS during “extended lunch hours” over the summer. Concert gigs were quick in coming.
The original script of Our American Cousin intended some music to be played, but it was unspecific. Excerpts from longer compositions written by classical composers were published in compendia of theme music used by silent movie theater organists. The Theatre Centre’s production may be the first in the play’s long history to have music extensively composed expressly for it. “They came to me last August and sent me the script,” he recalls.
“Freshness plays incredibly here. I waited until they were far enough into the production to decide what music I would write.” The rest was easy. “I had an idea of what I’d write from reading the script, but composing began in January. If you have a villain, you want something dark and mysterious in a minor key. You have music for the fair heroine, the American cousin, the sweet milk maid, the ‘petite one’ who is ‘so delicate,’ and the British family. There is comic ridiculousness in the music. We also have a real English folk song theme for the milk maid. When she sings it a cappella in the play, the audience has heard the melody before because that’s her theme as well.” All the music resembles what might have been heard in a 19th century theater; no modern phrasing or rhythms.
“While researching this, we discovered a polka had been written for Cousin. It was not part of the original production. It came years after,” Gifford explains. “Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, not only did we find an MP3 of that polka
playing, on closer examination, we found the printed sheet music and downloaded
it. That is the music played before and after the play here at the Hoogland.”
During the play, Gifford plays live behind a piano, with triangle and snare at
the ready. Unlike silent movies which are consistent, stage plays are sometimes
not. “In a live production, if the actor misses your cue (in the dialogue), you wave
it out, but if they jump to your cue prematurely, you have to be ready to go,” he says.
Looking ahead, Gifford says, “Reaction from the players here suggests I should look into copyrighting the
music, and offering it to future production companies. As for now, I want to
see how the audiences react. Whatever I do regarding future development of my
compositions will be based on that.”
When not tickling the ivories, Mark Gifford is associate pastor and director of music at Parkway Christian Church.