Back in the ‘90s, Dan Messé thought he would compose theater music full-time. He name drops less-than-famous musicals of the decade like William Finn’s Falsettos and Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins, and professes his admiration of Stephen Sondheim, all of which seems to substantiate his air of expertise in the field. But that was before the now-famous story of how his band Hem completed its lineup though an ad in the Village Voice; it was before the folksy Americana group released its many beloved albums, including this year’s emotionally riveting Departure and Farewell. But these days, Messé is right where he thought he would be, as the composer/lyricist working on the Broadway adaption of the film Amélie.
“Isn’t that exciting?!” he exclaims just a couple of days after he officially announced the news on Hem’s Facebook page. Messé is not a stranger to the Academy Award-nominated romantic comedy. In fact, a longstanding fan of the film, Messé even divulges that the Hem song “Half Asleep,” from 2007’s Home Again, Home Again EP was actually influenced by a certain scene in the movie.
“I wrote that imagining that scene where Amélie and Nino are speaking between the door,” he says, “So I’d already written a song for those characters, but then it took years and years to get the rights.”
The process began in 2009, shortly after Hem completed the music for the Public Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Central Park. A team of producers approached Messé about working together, searching for project with a built-in audience and immediate name recognition. Amélie eventually became the agreed upon title, much to Messé’s delight because, “it deals with so many of the themes…the way the past affects the present, how people connect in the world, all these things that I love.”
Since then, Messé has been working closely with Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Craig Lucas and lyricist Nathan Tysen, while also returning to the original text for inspiration and approval. Additionally, he reached out to director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who, as he deadpans, “hates musicals.”
Messé continues, “I wrote him back saying I’m not a fan of modern musicals either… I sent him some of the songs I was working on and he became interested.”
Based on his descriptions and a graciously shared private demo, the music for Amélie will feel familiar for Broadway (think swelling choruses and narrative lyrics), while still true to Messé’s personal background and style.
“It definitely sounds like me. One of the big challenges for me is that there is already iconic music associated with this piece. The Yann Tiersen score is amazing,” he gushes, drawing out the vowels in the last word.
“It’s like one of the best movie scores there is. It’s one of the reasons why I love the film. But, it’s not what I do. He’s a very different sort of composer than I am. And I’m not interested in doing Parisian music. I don’t think I’m even going to use accordion in my score. The music sounds like mine. But certainly, I’m not playing up the Americana elements either. I’m not having pedal steel and fiddle, but it’ll be hyper-romantic and playful more than anything.”
The production team is also currently looking at other ways to differentiate the musical from the film. Though nothing is confirmed, yet, Messé is hopeful that the staging especially will exemplify the fundamentally theatrical elements.
Although the opening date has not officially been released, Messé acknowledges his upcoming deadlines. “We have to finish the first draft by Labor Day,” he says with a surprising calm. “Right now, I’m just knee-deep in it. I’ve written probably two shows-worth of material right now. We’ve kicked out a bunch of songs already. That’s the other thing I love about theater—there’s no pressure. If something doesn’t work, it’s just cut. I love that. And if a piece of music is good enough, I’ll wind up using it for something else. It’ll turn into a Hem song or something. I love the music that we’re coming up with. It’s just gorgeous.”
As for Hem, the band has tour dates planned on the West Coast in September and in Europe the following month. And because everyone in the band has families, none of the jaunts will be too long. “It hasn’t affected Hem at all. Hem is very much alive and well,” states Messé. “So far, I’ve been able to manage to do both things. I hope that will continue.
“There is a real osmosis that goes on between the two projects. I think that Hem fans will definitely find a lot to love in this score. And vice versa, Amélie fans will hopefully discover Hem. I hope that new audiences discover the band.”