Meet Ed Motta — the Real “Music Man” of Brazilian Musical Theater

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"Music Man" Ed Motta (multishow.globo.com)
“Music Man” Ed Motta (multishow.globo.com)

What hasn’t musician, composer, singer, jazz-soul aficionado, multi-instrumentalist, and all-around nice guy Ed Motta accomplished in his professional life?

At its beginning – indeed, before there was even a “beginning” to speak of – and long before Dancing with the Stars was born, Motta made his mark on the music scene as a disco-dance contestant. He later dropped out of high school to become a vocalist with a hard-rock band named Kabbalah.

He also worked as a DJ and magazine contributor; was a co-founder of the group Conexão Japeri who eventually went solo; and was a serious (and I do mean, SERIOUS) book and record collector, as well as a prolific recording and performing artist.

He’s even done some animated movie work, the most conspicuous of which was providing the Brazilian-Portuguese translations (along with the singing voice) of British pop star Phil Collins’ songs for the Disney feature Tarzan. He did the same for Sting in The Emperor’s New Groove, also from Disney.

But all these extracurricular activities are well known quantities to his fans. What they might not say about the wildly eclectic 41-year-old, a nephew of the late, great Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia, is his unconventional excursion into the realm of the legitimate theater – specifically, the Broadway musical theater.

Well, not exactly Broadway per se, but the next best thing: the fabulous new world of Rio musicals, courtesy of the successful production team of Möeller-Botelho, the acknowledged “Kings of Brazilian Musicals” (Os Reis dos Musicais).

Ed Motta
Ed Motta

Could The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill have done it any better? No way! For one thing, Ed Motta is no charlatan: he’s the “real deal” when it comes to pure music-making. For another, it’s what he was meant to do all along.

“I love soul, funk and jazz,” Motta told British journalist John L. Waters, of London’s The Guardian, in December 2003. “But I simply adore Broadway musicals, and I love the London cast versions. My ambition,” he went on to elaborate, “is to write a musical so that I can hear the English singers do my music…” Let’s say that he’s halfway home.

On September 1, 2007, at the João Caetano Theater in Rio de Janeiro (Motta’s hometown), Brazilian audiences bore witness to the world premiere of 7 – The Musical, its first completely original, homegrown musical hit in recent memory. Not since the bygone days of Chico Buarque’s Roda viva (“Live Roundtable”) and Calabar, or Gota d’água (“The Last Straw”), his classic collaboration with writer Paulo Pontes, or even the Brecht-Weill inspired Ópera do Malandro (“The Street Hustler’s Opera”), has there been such buzz about a musical play.

As the offspring of proud parents Ed Motta (music), Charles Möeller (book and direction) and Claudio Botelho (lyrics and musical direction), 7 would go on to become a multi-award winner and box-office champion in both Rio and São Paulo. Who would’ve guessed?

So how did this extraordinary project come to pass? In February 2011, I corresponded with the work’s composer, Ed Motta, to discuss the genesis of his groundbreaking musical and how he arrived at this major turning point in his career.

Josmar Lopes Thank you, Ed, for taking time off from your busy schedule to correspond with me.

Ed Motta – Wassup, Joe?

JL – First off, when did you write the music for  7 – The Musical?

EM – I began to write some of these songs almost four, five years before the musical.

JL Did you have any idea of its dark and somber nature?

EM – I think some of the tunes do have this dark atmosphere, but there are happy waltzes and classic Broadway “Can-Can” as well. I have been writing these musicalesque tunes for a long time, usually it was just for my pleasure since my main audience knows me because of my soul-jazz tunes.

JL I’ll say! When did you decide to have Claudio Botelho and Charles Möeller build a musical play around your tunes? Whose idea was it to do this?

Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (vejario.abril.com.br)
Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (vejario.abril.com.br)

EM – I went to see their version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company [in 2000]. I loved not just the perfect Charles timing and direction, but Claudio’s acidic and cynical lyrics that reminds me of Donald Fagen’s words and stories inside the Steely Dan architecture.

JL Is this something you always wanted to do, to write a musical-theater piece?

EM – I like Broadway… I called Claudio and asked him that I really would like to show my Broadway-inspired tunes for them. They liked the atmosphere and they know the language very well, so it makes me more than proud and happy [what they did].

JL Who got the idea of doing a story based on a modern version of Snow White? Did you have any input in the development of the plot or songs?

EM – This idea was Charles and Claudio’s; I just wrote the tunes before and made some suggestions about the music. I remember the day they went to my house with the whole thing: it was God’s gift to me.

 JL Fantastic! There are only six musicians in the orchestra pit, who play piano, violin, cello, drums, alto sax and bass. With the conductor, that’s seven musicians. Was there a reason such a limited number of instruments was chosen for such a big musical?

EM – First of all budget, LOL. But a musical like Marry Me A Little from Sondheim has this [same] kind of minimalism regarding the orchestration. Delia Fischer, who used to be my music teacher in the 1990’s, did a wonderful job [of orchestrating 7]. It’s like some low-budget 40’s and 50’s movie soundtracks, with a little piece of the orchestra. It has a special drama and enhances the composition without the butter, LOL.

JL Describe your collaboration with Charles and Claudio, and what exactly you guys did to shape Seven into a musical.

EM – My thing was strictly musical, Charles [did] the direction and Claudio, like the Renaissance man that he is, did everything else. I wrote some instrumental passages and overture, underture, etc. I worked a little bit with the original cast, singing together and playing piano.

JL – Speaking for myself, I love this music! It’s so instantly recognizable and memorable!

EM – Wow, God bless!

Rogeria as Dona Odette in 7 - The Musical (youtube.com)
Rogeria as Dona Odette in 7 – The Musical (youtube.com)

JL When I first heard the songs, I immediately knew this was Broadway material. What inspired you to write this music, especially the marvelous and catchy numbers?

EM Inspiration? My record collection with more than 30,000 vinyl LPs, and of course loads of Broadway material. And composers Marc Blitzstein, Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, Frank Loesser, Vernon Duke, and so on. Of course, Stephen Sondheim is a super influence.

JL I’m glad you mentioned Sondheim. Do you agree with the criticism that 7 sounds more like a Sondheim-type of musical rather than a typically “Brazilian” piece?

EM – Ha ha! We have to remember Bernard Shaw’s words: “Who knows does, who doesn’t know teaches, and who cannot do either works as a critic.”

JL That’s true even today!

EM – Brazilian journalists do not know a dime about Broadway, and then people come up with these crazy statements. But commercial and cheesy things have bigger audiences all over the planet, right?

JL You’re right about that as well. You have a rather eclectic taste in music, with many styles and genres associated with your name, yet you’re a relatively young man. What is it that drove you to become such a versatile artist in such a short period of time?

EM – One more time I must give the credit to my record collection, to be an eBay freak buying records EVERY DAY and in many styles. Many soundtracks, musicals, rare soul, rare rock, rare reggae, but the most important thing in my collection is Jazz. My dream is to record an album with a Broadway influence [but] with a jazz viewpoint like Escalator Over The Hill from that musical genius Carla Bley.

JL – Your voice reminds people of the young Stevie Wonder. Are you flattered or embarrassed by the comparison?

EM – It’s a big honor for me, I love Stevie! But my main influence is Donny Hathaway, for me the best singer ever.

JL Donny is a smooth-jazz legend! You’re also a huge record collector and, as you say, you have over 30,000 records. That’s really quite extraordinary! Of all the albums that you own, what is your favorite type of listening music? Do you have a favorite artist or band?

EM – Ennio Morricone is the artist that I have the most records, almost 300 LPs by him. And many, many interests, i.e. free jazz, 60’s and 70’s rock. Donald Fagen and Steely Dan are a high-water mark in my life from 25 years ago. In fact, I’m going to be 40 this year.

JL – Congrats! The music for 7 is so different from your pop-influenced or funk-based work. There’s only one song, “Leva essa mulher” (“Take This Woman Now”), that I would classify as bluesy or jazzy. The rest are highly theatrical, especially “Canção em torno do defunto” (“Dance Around the Dead Man”), “Esfregando o chão” (“Scrub That Dirty Floor”), and my favorite, “O coração no bosque” (“A Heart in the Forest”). That last number was cut from the São Paulo production. I personally feel that song was a superb piece and should not have been dropped. What were your thoughts on that decision?

Zeze Motta & Alessandra Maestrini: 7 - The Musical
Zeze Motta & Alessandra Maestrini: 7 – The Musical

EM – Charles and Claudio know more about what to put into a musical than I do. I have experience, but my experience is regarding music and that’s it. But I do hope the English version [of 7] will have this Morricone-influenced tune back on stage.

JL Along those same lines, it’s my understanding an entire scene was deleted from Act II: the scene of the baby. However, this is a really crucial scene. Without it, the story has a great big “gap” in the middle. There is a good deal of psychological insight in this play (thanks to Charles’ book), and this scene helps to explain much of the plot. Was there a particular reason the scene was cut?

EM – I think it was because Brazilian audiences sometimes could not like something more artistic, in other words, less Ingmar Bergman and more Francis Ford Coppola, LOL.

JL Do you have any new music that you would like Charles and Claudio to adapt into a musical? Do you have any thoughts or ideas for a story? For example, would you be interested in a story based on Brazilian folklore or literature, such as Monteiro Lobato’s classic O Sitio do Picapau Amarelo (“The Ranch of the Yellow Woodpecker”)?

EM – No, this is not my cup of tea. I really would like to write something noir inspired, like a Jules Dassin movie [The Naked City, Rififi, Topkapi]. Something about detectives, femme fatales, etc.

JL Since it’s obvious you enjoyed the experience, would you consider becoming a producer or director of stage musicals?

EM – Wow, a producer? Too much work… My “Jefferson Airplane” lifestyle will not work with it, LOL. But I really would like to work with [musicals] again.

JL – We hope you do. Once again, I want to thank you for your help in answering my questions.

EM – Cheers mate.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “Meet Ed Motta — the Real “Music Man” of Brazilian Musical Theater

    […] due to Motta’s musical eclecticism (see my earlier interview with jazz-funk artist Ed Motta: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/meet-ed-motta-the-real-music-man-of-brazilian-musical-th&#8230😉 and to his extensive record […]

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