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Yale prof David Lang’s music has a job to do in ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle'

David Lang

Whatever circumstances kept theater director Liz Diamond and composer David Lang from working together at Yale Repertory Theatre would inevitably succumb to fate. Diamond, a resident director at Yale Rep, has directed several productions at the Tony Award-winning regional theater. Lang, a professor of composition at the Yale School of Music, earned his D.M.A. at Yale 26 years ago and has taught here, on and off, since 1994. Along the way, he’s won a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award, and composed music for film, ballet and theater.

At long last, he’s composing music for Yale Rep’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” directed by Diamond. Since Lang is a fan of Brecht, by way of the playwright’s longtime composer, Kurt Weill, Lang is tickled pink to work on the production, which starts previews Friday at University Theatre.

“The ghost of Kurt Weill hangs over everything I do, not just Brecht,” said Lang from his home studio in New York. “I saw an amazing production about a million years ago – the Raul Julia production of ‘Three Penny Opera,’ and it changed my life.

“It was the first time I’ve seen the production of that play,” said Lang. “And it was completely alive, and very cynical. It was dark and funny and terrifying. It had this weird combination of all these different emotions and it wasn’t trying to do what I thought most musicals were supposed to do.”

“Caucasian Chalk Circle,” written in 1944, is not a musical, but rather a play with music. Based on a 14th-century Chinese story, “Caucasian Chalk Circle” is a parable set in the war-torn country of Grusinia about a young servant named Grusha who rescues an abandoned baby, raises him as her own, and must fight to keep him when his wealthy mother returns to reclaim him.

In addition to several musicals written with Weill, Brecht wrote several straight plays such as “Caucasian Chalk Circle” that nonetheless feature songs. In Brecht’s Epic Theater, songs served to virtually pause the story and comment on the play rather than to advance its plot. This approach appealed to Lang.

“The interesting thing is that when you’re working with the playwright with songs, you have to actually figure out what the songs are to accomplish,” said Lang, who works closely with music director Daniel Schlosberg and sound designer Matt Tierney.

“And that’s what’s really interesting here. I think that (Brecht) wants to do something very different from what we expect from songs in other parts of our life. The songs are not about revealing the inner lives of the characters. It’s the actor stepping out of the character to tell you what the truth of the world is. It’s a very different role for the music and I really appreciate that.”

Lang said that he’s composed roughly 20 pieces of music in various forms. “Some of them are completely sung, some of them are partly song and some of them are somewhere in between,” he said.

“Some of them are flat out songs as anyone would recognize as song and some of them are ways of using musical ideas to ennoble forms of speech.”