Local Musician Lamar Harris on How Outkast Influenced the Score for a New Alice in Wonderland
When Lamar Harris was a kid, he would visit The Grandel in Grand Center to see shows put on by the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater Company, dreaming of one day performing on its stage. “Lo and behold, years later, here I am on the stage,” he says.
Harris is the music director for Metro Theater Company’s “Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventures,” which opened Dec. 2 and runs through Dec. 31 at The Grandel. For this eclectic take on Lewis Carroll’s most notable piece of work, Harris worked with a cast of actors who are also musicians to create a funky sound to accompany the vision of the show’s director Jamie McKittrick. Drawing on music artists such as Outkast and Common, the show gives Alice in Wonderland new life as it brings Harris career in performance full circle. Below he discusses working with the cast, his career trajectory and his knack for collaboration.
How did you get involved with “Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure”?
The director, Jamie McKittrick, reached out to me via Julia Flood, who’s the artistic director of Metro Theater, and they laid out what they were looking for and wanted somebody to put a different spin and take on the original score. After listening to their creative ideas, I just went to work and started dismantling and reshaping the sound of the show.
It’s a very eclectic rendition of Alice in Wonderland. I haven’t seen a rendition like this before. What were your first thoughts when you were asked to develop the music for the show?
I guess I was trying to figure out the direction that we needed to go in to make it applicable, because the one thing that’s tricky about this is that all the actors are playing live. Unless you are used to doing that, it can kind of be a little challenging especially when you have to dance and still have to act. It forced me to start thinking about this different direction, just making sure I took that in context. I listen to a lot of different music, so I was trying to figure out the sound. One day I was looking at an Outkast video and I started approaching it how André 3000 would approach it with that whole Dungeon Family, Organized Noize sound. There are a few songs like the Cheshire Cat song that is reminiscent of that down-South, Organized feel.
Does Metro’s telling of Alice in Wonderland depart from the original story at all?
Not really. It still stays true to Lewis Carroll’s original story. It just has music that is accompanying it to help assist with telling the story.
Have you arranged music for a show before?
I just recently did Shakespeare in the Streets. [It’s] their biggest show that they’ve done to date, which was actually on the steps of the [St. Louis Public] library this past summer. I arranged for a 60-piece choir and 30-piece band.
You said that the cast members have to play instruments throughout the show. What was the experience like when you first introduced the music to them? What was it like working with the cast?
It was a very unique and interesting process. Most of the timing of when instruments would play or when people needed to sing or dance, a lot of that was left up to the direction of Jamie. She actually did something that was pretty unique, too. She directed and choreographed the show; a lot of times you don’t find directors that can actually do both. She has a dance background and teaches dance at Webster [University]. Once I got an idea of what she needed in a scene, it gave me an idea of what we needed to have happening live and what few things needed to be in the track. A lot of people think I’m up there deejaying, when actually I have six keyboards that I’m playing.
You mentioned Outkast was one of your influences for the show. Did you have any other influences that you pulled from for the arrangement?
I listened to a lot of Pharrell, too, and a lot of Thundercat. I was trying to blend a lot of different worlds and at the same time take into account that when you look at each individual character you have to bring a certain aesthetic to that particular character. So I was just trying to find certain things that would match everybody’s personalities that they were putting and adding inside of the character. It was technically an ongoing process.
Shifting gears to talk more about your experience in music, can you talk to me about your origin story? Where did your story in music begin?
In the Normandy School District. I’m a graduate from Normandy. I went to Mizzou. If anything, that’s where I got a lot of my training for the business side of music, how you go about conducting yourself, how you go about getting gigs, how you understand contracts. Most of that was just as trial and error. I worked as a band director for almost 10 years at Crossroads College Preparatory School, but I was also on the neo-soul scene, playing with people like Chocolate, Eric Roberson, Dwele. I got hooked up with theater courtesy of the Shakespeare Festival. A young lady by the name of Jacqueline Thompson asked me to do the music for a show she was doing for Shakespeare in the Streets in Illinois and I did that in 2014 and they brought me on for their 2015 and 2016 run. I had a chance also in 2014 to act. I performed in “Buddy Holly,” which was the first time I ever did a musical, where everybody is actually playing live onstage, which is one thing that I think was helpful for this particular version of “Wonderland.”
During your time at Crossroads, I saw that you won an award in education because you helped develop the music program.
When I started off, there were only four students and by the time I left, 75 percent of the student body was involved in the music program. My kids have opened up for people like Algebra, Mos Def, Common. We were on the move. Wherever I went, I brought them along, too.
What has been one of the biggest highlights of your career thus far?
Wow. That’s a very good question. Shakespeare in the Streets was pretty big, being able to perform on the steps of the library and to have a huge choir, which was Central Baptist’s Choir and the Genesis Jazz Project. To be able to conduct music that is being performed in front of 2,000 to 3,000 people a night was pretty nice. This year in general has been pretty good. I had the opportunity to do the Whittaker Festival, which was almost like 7,000 people I had a chance to perform in front of. Doing “Wonderland” has been wonderful. And I won a artist fellowship through the Regional Arts Commission. This year has been a pretty good highlight.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just hope people will come out and see the show and for more information visit metroplays.org.
Images courtesy of Metro Theater Company.