The Sound Of (Electronic) Music
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The Sound Of (Electronic) Music

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

His name may not ring a bell, but his music became part of the soundtrack of American pop culture. Raymond Scott was a bandleader, pianist, composer and inventor of electronic instruments whose zany melodies were used in more than 100 animated shorts. In the new play, “Powerhouse,” Scott comes roaring back to life. When “Powerhouse” premiered at the Fringe Festival five years ago, Jason Zinoman of The New York Times called it “one steam train of a drama … the rare Fringe show that lives up to its title.” A revised version opened last weekend in the West Village.

Born in 1908 to Russian Jewish immigrants who owned a music store in East New York, Harry Warnow studied at Juilliard and then, having changed his name to Raymond Scott, succeeded his brother, Mark Warnow, as orchestra leader at CBS. He then recruited musicians from the station to play his own swing compositions. His greatest success came when Warner Brothers bought his compositions, including one titled “Powerhouse,” and used them for Looney Tunes. But his overriding passion was his experiments — some of which were developed in tandem with fellow music technology pioneer Robert Moog — in sound engineering and electronic musical devices for the household, which incorporated music in ashtrays, baby rattles and even sex toys. Scott died in 1994.

Developed by writer Josh Luxenberg and director Jon Levin, “Powerhouse,” which uses puppetry to create a theatrical version of animation, takes the audience on a multimedia journey through Scott’s life and career. After wooing his first, Jewish wife (Jessica Frey) by playing his own secret recordings of their phone conversations, Scott (Erik Lochtefeld) divorced her to marry his blonde young, non-Jewish protégé, Dorothy Collins (Hanley Smith) who had become the lead singer on his show, CBS’ “Your Hit Parade.” But after divorcing Collins and marrying for the third time, he retreated increasingly into the solitary world of his own musical experimentation.

In an interview, Luxenberg told The Jewish Week that his team “wanted the play to feel like a piece of Scott’s music.” Scott saw his own work as different from that of Spike Jones, whose band performed edgy, riff-like compositions that interpolated unusual sounds. Instead, Scott longed for the day when a machine could carry the brainwaves of the composer directly into the mind of the listener.

Scott strove mightily to distance himself from his Jewish roots, not just by changing his name but by having a nose job, marrying non-Jewish wives and throwing massive Christmas parties in his mansion in Manhasset, L.I. Nevertheless, Luxenberg said, it was “hard to shave away the Jewish part of his identity,” which remained humming, like one of his machines, in the background of his life.

“Powerhouse” runs through Sunday, Nov. 23 at the New Ohio Theater, 154 Christopher St. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $15-45, visit www.powerhouse-theplay.com.

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