Ask Josh Schmidt what he’s listening to these days, and the Milwaukee-born composer and sound designer might offer some surprising choices.

“Right now, I am listening to a lot of Leoš Janáček, some rock ’n’ roll, and I am very excited by Black Star, the last David Bowie album,” Schmidt says. “I am a restless listener. I can’t get enough.”

Ask Schmidt what composers most influenced his musical style, and the UWM Peck School of the Arts graduate’s answer becomes more complicated.

“If I had said I loved a piece by Erik Satie, my mentor would have told me to follow that thread backward and forward,” Schmidt says. “Suddenly I’m faced with composers ranging from Franz Joseph Haydn to John Cale. It all comes down to research and listening.”

Yehuda Yannay, a composer and UWM music professor emeritus — one of several mentors Schmidt names — would likely appreciate his former student’s continued approach to both listening and learning. He also would applaud the musical success Schmidt has had since graduating in 1999.

Three musicals and counting

Thus far, the composer — who now divides his time between Milwaukee and New York City — has written for theater and dance, in the classical, jazz, electronic and bluegrass veins, to name a few.

What’s more, he’s had two theatrical hits in the Big Apple.

Schmidt’s musical adaptation of The Adding Machine — based on Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionistic play about the rising threat of automation — opened at Chicago’s Next Theater in 2008, traveling from there to a successful off-Broadway engagement. The musical had its 2011 Milwaukee debut at the Skylight Music Theatre.

The composer followed that with The Minister’s Wife, with a book written by actor/playwright Austin Pendleton based on George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. The musical opened at The Writer’s Theater in Glencoe, Illinois, in 2009, then traveled to Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater in New York in 2011, garnering positive reviews.

Both shows earned Schmidt theater awards in the years they were presented. The composer also was named the Peck School Graduate of the Decade in 2009.

Truly Gothic

Schmidt’s current work, Midwestern Gothic, is still gaining traction since opening in March at Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C. Reviews have been mixed. Some critics have likened the production, written by Canadian author Royce Vavrek, to a dark underbelly of Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Oklahoma!

But then, what can you expect from a show that opens with Red, the male protagonist, sitting in an armchair drinking a beer and masturbating while watching the Home Shopping Network?

All the while Red is being observed by his randy, aroused stepdaughter Stina, a murderous Lolita with distinct plans of having her way and fleeing the rural hellhole into which she was born.

Midwestern Gothic is a piece of confrontational theater and musically a little risky,” Schmidt admits. “But, what the hell. You only live once.”

Critical complaints have largely focused on the show’s narrative, which reportedly starts slow and contains too little clarity in describing Stina’s plans. Some of the performances — although none by the principals — also were tagged as unfocused and off-center.

The narrative’s seamier side, it seems, only worked to the show’s benefit. Schmidt’s piano-driven score, with its country and pop overtones, received nice notices for the way it underscored Stina’s murderous desires and provided the narrative with greater structure and form.

“It was marketed as a cross between Fargo and Misery, but it’s not really that at all,” Schmidt allows. “We’re not calling it Midwestern Peacefulness — that’s a whole different show. This one considers the worst of all possible scenarios.”

The musical, which first began developing in 2010, is still a work in progress, according to Schmidt. Audiences in general have been positive about its continued development.

“The reviews were all across the board, but in a general sense everyone says this is intriguing, keep working on it,” Schmidt says. “’Go deeper,’ they add. ‘Don’t let us off the hook.’”

Many irons in the fire

But Schmidt also has other work keeping him busy this season. A longtime fixture in the Milwaukee, Chicago and, increasingly, New York theater scenes, Schmidt also has spent the last 15 summers creating music and designing sound for American Players Theatre productions in Spring Green. APT’s 2010 Gift of the Magi featured music by Schmidt and book and lyrics by APT core company member James DeVita.

Schmidt will compose the music and create the sound design for APT’s two Shakespeare productions this year: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Both will be performed on APT’s brand-new stage in the outdoor Up-the-Hill amphitheater.

The commission that has Schmidt most excited, however, is Fallingwater, an opera based on Frank Lloyd Wright and the creation of Fallingwater, arguably the Wisconsin architect’s best known and most audacious work in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Schmidt has been working on the project for three years.

Schmidt is working with librettist Dick Scanlan on the work, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Scanlan is an actor/playwright best known for co-authoring the Tony Award-winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and a redevelopment of Meredith Willson’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The Schmidt/Scanlan opera will focus on Edgar Kaufmann Jr., the one-time Wright apprentice and largely indolent son of Pittsburgh business tycoon Edgar Kaufmann Sr. At his son’s encouragement, Kaufmann Sr. commissioned Wright to design and build the iconic residence, so named because it was built across the top of a waterfall.

As a member of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, Kaufmann Jr. was an unremarkable architect. Wright dismissed him four months after Kaufmann Sr. signed the commission for Fallingwater, Schmidt says.

“The opera is about the aimless son of a very rich man who is trying to figure out where he fits with the rest of the world,” Schmidt says. “Kaufmann Jr. learns that there are creative people who make the things, and then people and institutions who curate those creations. One cannot exist without the other.”

The scenario reflects what’s part of any creative process. It’s something that Schmidt well understands.

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