It’s hard not to be moved by THE MIRACLE WORKER. From its genesis on TV’s PLAYHOUSE 90 to its Tony Award-winning Broadway production and the celebrated film (and later stage revivals and TV movies), the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan is the stuff of great drama. But nothing captures the inspirational magic of the story like the 1962 film adaptation of William Gibson’s play.
Arthur Penn’s direction is justly lauded as are the well-deserved Oscar-winning performances of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke as Annie and Helen. Not often getting the credit it is due is Laurence Rosenthal‘s beautiful score.
This was one CD I was not going to miss again.
Rosenthal was originally hired to provide a score for the stage production. Though that idea was scrapped, we can thank the play’s original producer, Fred Coe, and Penn for bringing Rosenthal back for the film.
The score is based on three main themes–one each for Annie and Helen, both based on separate three-note motifs, and a tender interpolation of the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” which serves to show the budding relationship between Annie and her pupil. Annie is no wall flower and her theme is full of bustling energy.
Helen’s theme, which begins with a descending three-note motif, offers a haunting hint at her loneliness and isolation. The story, of course, climaxes at the scene at the water pump. As Helen’s neck strains and she slaps her palm, her theme yearns upward one final time in joy and recognition as she discovers the ability to “speak”. If the combination of the story, the performances, and Rosenthal’s music don’t move you at this point, you better check your pulse.
Because of his success in television, Rosenthal’s sporadic film career has never received proper acknowledgment. His scores for A RAISIN IN THE SUN, BECKET, and THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE are particularly noteworthy. But there is something special about THE MIRACLE WORKER. What could have easily have become maudlin and trite in the hands of a lesser composer is instead a delicate, simple score that never overwhelms the drama.
The music contains hints of Copland and Barber-like harmonies in spots, yet is a total original. The score was recorded by members of the New York Philharmonic in the ballroom of the Great Northern Hotel in New York. On certain tracks, you can hear chair movement and other sounds from the recording sessions which, rather than distracting, give the recording a sense of immediacy and intimacy. The liner notes by John Takis manage to give us just enough information on the film and Rosenthal without sacrificing a discussion of the score.
The score had only been released previously on a 2-CD promo of Rosenthal’s music available through the Film Music Society. Intrada’s commercial release sold out at most online retailers within a couple of days. Thanks to Intrada for bringing this miraculous score to light once again, albeit briefly.