Robert Elhai's career is a testament to having a few good friends.
Sitting at a Hennepin Avenue coffee shop, the Minneapolis composer, orchestrator and arranger says, "I feel like my career is really kind of unique. I love that I work with a few composers and that I work on as many projects as they can afford to hire me on. I never wanted this thing where I was in L.A. and just piecing together a freelance life."
As an orchestrator and arranger for major Hollywood studio films and much more (check out his credits), he is a key component not often recognized by the glam of industry press.
"I guess if you think about it this way, the artist conceives of the painting, the arranger draws in the outlines of the painting, and the orchestrator colors it," he says. "Very broadly speaking. And, of course, all of those things intersect with each other."
Just coming off his latest collaboration with composer Brian Tyler, a film called Crazy Rich Asians that is due for release later this year, he's spent his movie-music life traveling through the DC Comics and Marvel cinematic universes — The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Batman & Robin — as well as many other big-budget films. He's even worked with the heavy metal band Metallica on its Grammy-winning live album S&M and on the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. While he works on a lot of Twin Cities theater projects, he also was part of the teams that produced The Lion King and Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.
"I like to be part of a team that produces a bigger work," he says. "I like to collaborate. I really come from a musical theater background, more than a film background. And what I always liked about musical theater was all these people get together in a room during tech rehearsals, the whole team, and we're all sitting together in the same room working toward the same end."
Elhai grew up in Southern California, but he wanted to pursue his undergraduate degree at a small, liberal arts college where it snows, so he ended up at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Drawn to musical theater by the likes of Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein in his West Side Story days, he eventually landed in New York. He was pursuing a classical composition education, but always with the idea of doing musical theater.
"The people I looked up to brought the substance and intensity of classical compositions to the job of writing a musical," he explains.
It's in New York where he met composer Elliot Goldenthal.
"He was my way in, and I am very fortunate, because Elliot kind of got in through the back door," he explains. "He sent the music for [his musical] Juan Darien around. People liked it, wanted it in their movies, and before we knew it we were scoring Alien3. And he just zoomed to the top of the heap."
Elhai stayed in New York until late 1994 and along with Goldenthal's work began to collaborate with Michael Kamen, who also had an expansive career in film and pop music. But Minnesota beckoned again.
"So, I moved back here in 1994, and at the same time my film orchestration career really took off, thanks to Elliot's agent, who was also Michael's agent, who was Brian's [Tyler] agent, who was also James Newton Howard's agent," he says. "And, once I started working with Michael, he really noticed me and started getting me involved with these other composers, thinking I could help them. It led to me having this sort of go-to kind of reputation and also I was that guy from Minnesota — and you know you are at the pinnacle of your career when you don't have to live in L.A."
Over the course of Elhai's film-music career, the work flow hasn't really changed. He gets hired for a project. He works as much as possible remotely in Minnesota. Then, when the time comes, he flies to a studio.
"The recording of a film score is something that is very compressed, as opposed to a shoot," he says. "It's a week, maybe. And the time spent prepping has gotten more compressed, so at most it is maybe a month from when I first get involved to when we actually record it — and oftentimes it's a couple of weeks. So, it's something where I can easily do it from here and then travel to the recording session. And lately it's been common to just stream the recording session from London or Eastern Europe that I don't even have to leave."
While this hasn't changed the process from a composing perspective, from an orchestration point of view, it removes the ability to just walk out and say, "What if you try it like this?"
"I definitely miss being able to go out and talk," he says. "I like to interact with the players."
There has been one major change, though.
It used to be that "a score was created in the recording studio — that nobody knew what it sounded like until the orchestra played it," he says. "One of the reasons why orchestra music is so exciting when it's played live is because you know there are a bunch of people working together to the same end, and it's thrilling."
But, nowadays, "the score is really written in the composer's studio and the director signs off on the score based on the mock-ups," he adds. "So recording the score is sort of a formality. Sometimes it's literally just replacing samples. The composer plays it into a sequencer, it's transcribed from that, and put in front of the players. There's no real sense that it is being orchestrationally enhanced. It's a different process. There's a lot less play and a lot less collaboration in that respect."
The "play" is what keeps him in theater.
"I never really wanted to pursue a career in film," he admits. "My heart had always been in the theater. That's where I really wanted to work. And my thinking was that if I could just work enough on these Hollywood films because they paid well, if I could just do enough of those a year, that would provide an income and I could subsidize my theater work with it."
From that vantage point, Elhai has performed magic — shaping the sound of cinema and theater for the past 24 years, all from his home in the Twin Cities.
Across the Universe
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Don Juan Demarco
Fast & Furious
Frida (Oscar for best score)
The Greatest Game Ever Played
The Iron Giant
Iron Man 3
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
The Sixth Sense
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Thor: The Dark World
C. (Theater Latte Da, Minneapolis)
Glensheen (Minnesota History Theater)
Home for the Holidays (Minnesota Orchestra)
The Lion King (Broadway; Tony winner)
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Broadway)
Sweet Land (Minnesota History Theater)
Twisted Apples: Stories From Winesburg, Ohio (Nautilus Music Theater, St. Paul)
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (video game)
Hawaii Five-O (TV)
Lego Universe (video game)
Metallica: S&M (music)
Quantum of Solace (video game)
Star Trek: Enterprise (TV)
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