By Sarah Bergen
On the evening of Sept. 17, Dr. Jack Sullivan took his seat among Alfred Hitchcock fans and classical music lovers and heard his own words pour from Alec Baldwin’s lips.
An English professor and the director of American Studies at Rider, Sullivan, who happens to be a passionate Hitchcock expert, was handpicked to write the narrative script for the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Hitchcock! Sullivan’s words, which detailed Hitchcock’s use of music scores to create suspense in his films, were brought to life by Hollywood stars Alec Baldwin, Sam Waterson and Eva Marie Saint.
“Writing for actors’ voices turned out to be very pleasurable,” Sullivan said. “It was a thrill to do something for the New York Philharmonic.”
Hitchcock! was the first portion of “The Art of the Score: Film Week” at the Philharmonic. Led by conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, the Philharmonic presented musical selections from Hitchcock films while scenes from the movies played on an enormous backdrop. The films included To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Funeral March of a Marionette, Dial M for Murder and North by Northwest.
After an initial script was rejected by Baldwin, who was the artistic adviser and host of the performance, Sullivan was chosen by Betsey Perlmutter Tumarkin, artistic planning manager of the New York Philharmonic, to construct the script.
“I knew of his book on music in Hitchcock’s films, so when it was time to prepare the remarks for Alec and Sam, I thought, ‘Who better?’” Tumarkin said. “We wanted to take the audience on a journey, and Jack’s script helped us tremendously in doing just that.”
After a short interview, Sullivan was hired on the spot. With less than a week remaining until the debut, he had only four days to write the script.
Sullivan got to work and handed in his masterpiece on time, only to be left anxiously awaiting a response. The day before the performance, Baldwin approved the script.
The following night, Sullivan’s hard work paid off as he took in the performance from his seat in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City.
“The Philharmonic’s playing was stunning, and it was a revelation to hear the music live as the scenes unfolded,” Sullivan said. “The whole experience was amazing, though a bit nerve-wracking.
“Baldwin changed a few lines to suit his voice, but basically left it intact,” Sullivan said. “His reading was strong and straightforward.”
The second performance was narrated by Sam Waterson, a star of the TV show Law & Order and the face of Nick Carraway in the 1974 version of The Great Gastby. Sullivan said that Waterson’s reading was “more witty and nuanced.” Sullivan also noted that upon meeting Waterson backstage, he was “extremely warm and personable.”
The performance received positive reactions from critics and drew in large crowds.
According to The New York Times, the hall was packed with a very diverse audience and the performance succeeded in attracting “large numbers of Philharmonic newbies.”
The intricacies involved in combining a live orchestra with film scenes and dialogue were not overlooked. Cinemaretro.com said the performance was “an impressive feat, given the fact that being off timing by a mere second could wreak havoc on the concept.”
More than a month after the debut of the performance, its success was reiterated when the San Francisco Symphony adopted the program, along with Sullivan’s script. On Nov. 2, his words were spoken by Academy Award-winning actress Eva Marie Saint at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.
Sullivan hopes that other orchestras will follow suit, since the program is apparently a winner among audiences and critics alike.
“This experience taught me the importance of saying yes when offered an important assignment that might never come again, even if you are not sure you can bring it off,” Sullivan said. “It also opened up an exciting new arena, as I’ve never done this before. To have the program picked up by the San Francisco Symphony — another great orchestra — and have the script read by Eva Marie Saint was almost too good to be true.”
Printed in the 11/13/13 edition.