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THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK – John Williams

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A raucous fantasy comedy based on the novel by John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick stars Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher, as three women in a small New England town suffering from broken relationships: fiery artist Alexandra (Cher) is a widow, shy and insecure teacher Jane (Sarandon) is a divorcee, and mousy writer Sukie (Pfeiffer) was abandoned by her husband, leaving her to raise six children alone. Despite them living in a town with a history of magic, none of the women realize that they have powers of witchcraft, until an unusual stranger named Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) arrives in town and begins courting each of them in turn; before long, the women are spending time at Daryl’s mansion, learning about their powers, and finally indulging the passionate, sexual sides of their personality after years of being unfulfilled and repressed. However, as Daryl’s behavior starts to get more and more unpredictable, the women begin to worry about his intentions, and whether his arrival in Eastwick was a good idea.

The Witches of Eastwick was the American studio debut of Australian director George Miller, hot off his success with the Mad Max franchise, and was a popular critical and commercial success. Special praise was afforded to Jack Nicholson for his raucous central performance as the irreverent suitor who takes Eastwick by storm, as well the three leading women, and also Veronica Cartwright for her eccentric, scene-stealing supporting role as a pious Christian woman who senses something wrong with Daryl from the start – even before he ‘pops her cherry,’ so to speak. Praise was also reserved for the film’s score, by the legendary John Williams, who penned one of his most devilishly delightful works, and earned himself an Academy Award nomination for his trouble.

The score is anchored around a recurring main theme, the “Dance of the Witches,” which receives full concert statements in the second and fourteenth cues. The Witches Theme is a sprightly, mischievous piece, a whirligig of flighty string runs, feather-light woodwinds, harpsichords, and occasionally quite bombastic brass. The tapped tambourine percussion recalls Bernard Herrmann’s Oscar-winning score for The Devil and Daniel Webster – another classic score about Old Nick – while the peculiar spongy, squelchy sound effects have some very faint echoes of Jerry Goldsmith’s second Omen score, while reminding you that this is in fact a comedy. The Witches Theme gets top billing throughout the score, playing some part in virtually every cue, so if it doesn’t grab you straight away, it may cause you problems with the rest of the score. The theme is very different from the serious drama or rich adventure scores Williams was more famous for at the time, having a much more jaunty personality, and anyone unfamiliar with his musical sense of humor may be surprised to find him writing music with this sort of tone.

Statements of the theme abound. In the opening cue, “The Township of Eastwick,” it appears as a pretty, idyllic version for spry, high-pitched woodwinds and strings. This version has an all-American pastoral sound, but is tempered with slightly detached-sounding synth lines to give it a sense of mystery, and has more than a hint of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre in the violin phrasing, touching on the potential for skullduggery behind the white picket fences.

Later, in “Daryl Arrives,” the theme is underpinned by more strident brass, along with all manner of bombastic and playful orchestrations, while “The Ride Home” is a fairly straightforward recapitulation, albeit with a few more brass and woodwind flourishes, more prominent rattling percussion, and more obvious squishy sound effects. Also noteworthy is the “Tennis Game” cue, which takes the light and good-humored orchestrations from the Township of Eastwick and adorns them with nimble piano scales, effervescent string writing, verdant woodwinds, and light metallic percussion; unexpectedly, some of this has some very faint echoes of “Jim’s New Life,” the scherzo from Empire of the Sun, his other major score from 1987.

A secondary theme for Daryl himself is introduced in “The Seduction of Alex,” which begins with slithery, come-hither strings, harpsichords, and low bassy synth chords. The first hints of Daryl’s Theme begin hesitantly at the 1:59 mark, before it finally emerges as an explosion of string-heavy soaring Golden Age romance that Max Steiner wouldn’t have been ashamed to own. Daryl’s Theme is clever because it depicts both the persona Daryl wants the world to see – the romantic, if eccentric lothario – while also hinting at the darker aspects of his true nature. For example, “Daryl’s Secrets” opens with a creepy re-working of the Witches Theme for woodwinds and harpsichord, cleverly offset against deconstructed chords from Daryl’s Theme on brass; the cue gradually becomes more frantic, jumping from theme to theme and across the orchestra with reckless abandon, as Daryl’s titular secrets are revealed.

Even more clever is the performance of Daryl’s Theme in “Have Another Cherry,” a dark, slightly bulbous piece of writing for the famous ‘cherry pip vomiting’ scene that turned the stomachs of many an audience member. In this cue the heaving orchestral comedy-horror tones are underpinned by several insistent synth variations on Daryl’s Theme (the first one at 1:21), intentionally interrupting the flow of the music, while simultaneously featuring some anguished moments of dissonance. The subsequent “Daryl Rejected” sees Daryl’s Theme presented in a pseudo-tragic renaissance style with classical solo piano, harpsichord textures, and string and woodwind accents; the sequence towards the end of the piece where Daryl’s Theme is counterpointed against both the melody of the Witches Theme, and then separately against the underlying rhythm, is technically masterful.

“The Seduction of Suki and the Ballroom Scene” contains one of my all time favorite Williams romantic themes – not a small claim to make, considering just how many beautiful love themes he has penned over the years. The cue begins with a series of elegant woodwind, string, and harp textures, as well as understated hints of Daryl’s Theme, but gradually emerges into a glorious, lush, richly classical romantic waltz piece for solo piano and, eventually, the full orchestra.

Unforgivably, director George Miller removed much of Williams’s music from the ballroom scene in the final cut of the film, and replaced it instead with a recording of Luciano Pavarotti performing Puccini’s classic aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot. Of course, Nessun Dorma is a glorious piece of music in its own right but, honestly, I think Miller made a mistake here. Pavarotti’s piece was already a bit of an overly-familiar chestnut by 1987, and it takes you completely out of the film when it kicks in. I personally feel that Williams’s piece has more of a sense of idyllic innocence, and better captures the emotions of the three central women as they are at that point in the film, and it still annoys me to this day when the music dials out just as the biggest performance of Williams’s theme is about to start.

The third cue, “Maleficio,” had already presented some of the score’s more impressionistic and unusual elements – stark violin textures in Danse Macabre style, pizzicato effects, shrill woodwinds, descending brass phrases, twisted and tortured statements of the Witches Theme – making that cue in particular one of Williams’s more creative experiments with dissonance at any point in the 1980s.

This style of writing comes to a head in “The Destruction of Daryl,” by far the score’s largest and most bombastic piece, which is given an appropriate religioso undercurrent through the inclusion of a church organ into the instrumental mix. There are some big, bold moments of power and muscle here, especially from the brass section, and the whole thing makes use of quicker tempos, often rising to rich crescendos. The score reaches its zenith as the true extent – and true identity – of Daryl is finally revealed to the townsfolk of Eastwick, to which Williams responds with some really unexpectedly vivid and vicious action music peppered with flakes of Daryl’s Theme. Finally, only the peculiar, singularly creepy “The Children’s Carousel” – a twisted fairground version of the Witches Theme for synths and chimes – stands between the listener and the final statement of the Dance of the Witches in the “End Credits”.

The soundtrack to The Witches of Eastwick was released on CD, cassette, and vinyl LP when the film was released in 1987, but the CD version of the soundtrack went out of print almost immediately, and by the early-2000s was one of the rarest Williams soundtracks in existence, commanding prices of more than $200 on the secondary market. As a respite to he wallets all film music collectors, the soundtrack was finally re-released in 2006 by the obscure label Collector’s Choice, and then again in 2012 by producer Robin Esterhammer’s boutique label Perseverance; both these releases feature identical content to the 1987 original.

Looking back at The Witches of Eastwick now, thirty years later, one thing that stands out to me (other than the quality of the music) is how much I miss John Williams writing music for films that are not either Star Wars sequels or Steven Spielberg projects. Don’t get me wrong, I love those scores enormously, but it’s clear that directors like George Miller brought out something different in Williams, just by the nature of him being a different human being. Anyone who has never really experienced the more playful, slightly mischievous side of John Williams’s personality would do well to seek The Witches of Eastwick out; if the main theme hits you positively, as it did with me, it has tons of replay value.

Buy the Witches of Eastwick soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Township of Eastwick (2:47)
  • The Dance of the Witches (4:57)
  • Maleficio (3:20)
  • The Seduction of Alex (2:40)
  • Daryl’s Secrets (3:55)
  • The Seduction of Suki and the Ballroom Scene (7:05)
  • Daryl Arrives (2:35)
  • The Tennis Game (2:52)
  • Have Another Cherry! (3:25)
  • Daryl Rejected (3:03)
  • The Ride Home (3:22)
  • The Destruction of Daryl (5:39)
  • The Children’s Carousel (1:54)
  • End Credits (The Dance of the Witches Reprise) (4:57)

Running Time: 52 minutes 31 seconds

Warner Bros. Music 257070-2 (1987)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Album produced by John Williams.

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