IF CYRANO'S TRADEMARK was his nose, then James Prigmore's is probably bib overalls.
That's not an outfit one normally associates with composers. On the other hand, Prigmore is hardly your everyday example of the species."It's the only sensible way to dress," the Bingham Canyon native says of his usual costume. "When I was a child my parents dressed me in overalls, then when I became a teenager it was considered more appropriate to wear a shirt and slacks. I found I was more comfortable in overalls, so when I was 25 or so I switched back." To the extent of even having a bib-overall tuxedo custom-made for formal occasions.
That's just the tip of the Prigmore-berg. At 45, his 200-plus compositions embrace everything from oboe and cello sonatas to operas (the last including a Wagnerian spoof, "The Rise of the Gods, or the Downfall of Wagner"). His "Sinfonia da Chiesa" on the Vietnam War was premiered as early as 1967. Three years later his cantata "Palmyra: Spring of 1820" received a full-scale presentation in the Salt Lake Tabernacle by the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus. As a television composer he has scored programs as diverse as "The New Land" and "Starsky and Hutch." And as music director (since 1969) for Pioneer Theater Company he is responsible this season for two scores, first for "Cyrano de Bergerac" and second for next February's production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"I am a born musician of the theater," he insists, likewise tracing that enthusiasm back to his boyhood in Bingham.
"It was a fantastic experience growing up there," he says, citing the community's diverse ethnic mix. "Especially the gypsies. We had real gypsies with gold chains, crystal balls, fortune telling - all that."
They also had a movie theater, to which his father, as a Kennecott employee, had free passes. "They showed a different movie every night of the week and I went to a movie every night of the week," Prigmore recalls, "so I grew up on the films of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. But more to the point the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and that's been my aural image for the music I'm writing for "Cyrano."
That means as much sweep and swash as can be buckled into a six-piece orchestra. Ironically Korngold himself never scored "Cyrano," but he did do "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - his first assignment at Warner Bros. as it happens, and essentially a reworking of Mendelssohn. Prigmore says his "MND" music will be very different, "a much more delicate score, probably for harp, flute and either viola or cello with mallet percussion - xylophone, bells etc. - to play up the fantasy elements."
Since there is a certain fantastic air about Prigmore himself (at least one writer has referred to him as "Puckish"), that should be no problem. At the same time, like Cyrano, he is as famous around PMT for his thrusts of temper as for his rapier-like wit.
"A few times I've wanted to kill him," says a veteran of more than one Prigmore-conducted musical. "I remember when we were doing `The Merry Widow" and things weren't going as well as he thought they should, he told us how Toscanini was his hero and how he used to say to his singers that they could always go home to their families but he would have to live with this. He said he felt the same way. But it's a wonder what he does over there - he really gets some fantastic performances. But he's something of a prima donna."
A longtime member of the PTC orchestra agrees. "He can be very demanding, even abusive at times. But I take that as personal frustration with wanting things to be excellent. He certainly has a sense of what orchestration is going to work with a show on the stage."
He also exhibits more social tolerance than he is sometimes credited with. When we first met, for example, he was introduced to me as "Jim." It was only much later he confided to me that he prefers James. "That's what all my close friends call me." For the rest, he says, "it's not worth the trouble to correct."
As a raconteur, I have heard him hold audiences young and old spellbound with his stories and anecdotes. Musicians who have witnessed his Children's Dance Theatre performances of "The Nightingale" in the schools report that "the children are enthralled - they always are."
In that they duplicate Prigmore's own experience at age 12 when his parents first took him to a University of Utah Summer Festival performance of "South Pacific." "I thought I had died and gone to heaven," he says. "I came home that night and started a journal, and the first entry was `I know a musical future awaits me.' "
It did, but not without some travail. Upon entering the U. a few years later, Prigmore was told he had no aptitude for music. "That didn't faze me," he says. "I simply kept on doing what I wanted to do, which was to be a musician." But he allows that even today he has to put in five times more preparation on a score than some of his more gifted colleagues.
Among influential teachers he cites the U.'s Helen Folland ("she taught me theory"), the flamboyant Paul Banham ("more his personal style than the actual knowledg he imparted") and, briefly, the late Leroy J. Robertson.
"I was hardly one of his prize students," Prigmore confesses. "I could never seem to get around to enjoying analyzing Bach fugues. But he taught me one tremendously valuable lesson. One day I brought him an exercise and after he had played through it he said, `This is really pretty mediocre stuff.' I told him I agreed, that I didn't like it very much myself, and he absolutely hit the ceiling. `How do you expect anybody else to like your material if you don't like it yourself?' he said. From then on I made a point of never submitting to anybody anything I didn't have some appreciation for myself."
It was PMT's C. Lowell Lees who gave him his first theatrical job, in 1964 at the Pasadena Playhouse. "I was in my last quarter of study," Prigmore says, "and I didn't even bother to withdraw from school. As I recall, I got about 22 hours of E that quarter."
After a hitch in the Army, where he served as composer/pianist for the Contintental Army Band at Fort Monroe, Prigmore was tapped as music director for Repertory Dance Theatre. Then after a couple of years the call came from PMT.
Despite his compositional credits, Prigmore's first scores for the company were for last year's "Hamlet" and "Death of a Salesmen." "How would I characterize my music?" he muses. "Generally very chameleonlike, taking on the character of whatever production I'm working on. I think that's what a theater composer ought to do. I'm sure there's something of me in each, but I have no idea what that might be."
Former teacher Folland agrees that Prigmore has a remarkable range. "He can write in practically any style," she says. "I remember you could give him an idea and he would simply take off. The others might come up with, say, 16 measures and he would come in with a 10-minute piece."
His own favorite among his many compositions is a setting of the Houseman poem "When I Was One and Twenty" he turned out in 30 minutes around 10 years ago. "I think it's my greatest achievement as a composer," he says, "because it's perfect, a flawless work of art. It only takes 60 seconds to sing, but it's imaginative, witty and touching."
Somewhat, one wonders, like the composer himself?