A show that often went unrewarded for its spectacular work was “Once Upon a Time,” a fantasy series that aired on ABC until this last spring. The series ran seven seasons and brought to life dozens of characters from Disney films and fairy tales in a modern setting. One of the best elements was the music, which finally received an Emmy nomination this year in the Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score) category. It was the show’s first nomination since 2014 and features the only woman in the entire Music Composition category, Cindy O’Connor. Cindy shares the nomination with Mark Isham and Michael D. Simon, with the three splitting duties on the show. Cindy sat down with me to talk about her work on “Once Upon a Time,” coming from a musical theater background and being the only woman nominee in her category.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: I want to start off by saying congratulations on your Emmy nomination, that must be very exciting.
Cindy O’Connor: Thank you, we were all very excited.
AF: With the show concluding this season and getting that Emmy nomination to represent the entire series, how did that feel for you and your team?
CO: It was really gratifying to know that this show has such a great fan base. We’ve had such a long and fun run, it was extra gratifying to have that extra special recognition for music for the show.
AF: This was the first time for your team to get nominated in Dramatic Score, correct?
CO: Yes! I think Mark Isham won an Emmy for “Chicago Hope” years ago, but it was definitely a first for me and a first for Mike Simon too.
AF: One of the things I noticed is that there’s the three of you nominated. How much collaboration did you do this last season?
CO: It’s pretty much all hands on deck each week. Mark started the show and wrote most of the pilot alone, which set up many of the great themes for these characters. Mike and I have come in to do a lot of the weekly writing, so we sort of took the ball and ran with all the themes and ideas that Mark set up.
AF: How did the process work on a week to week basis? Did you do live recording sessions every week?
CO: We did! We were fortunate enough to have live recording sessions with a live orchestra every week. I think we had 24 players. The last year we only had a week for each episode, which is a crazy pace. We have to get everything to the orchestrators and copyists and have it printed out and on the stands. We would basically get the episode on a Monday, Mark would watch it and the three of us would figure out who was doing what. We would have 4 days to write and turn it in and see if the producers had any notes or changes, and then get it out to the rest of the team.
AF: You are the only woman nominated in the composing categories this Emmy cycle, correct?
CO: I am, that’s crazy right?
AF: It really is. Why do you think it’s so hard for women to get attention in this field?
CO: You know, it’s such a hard question and I feel like I don’t have a good answer. I know that it takes time to build a career in this business, and at the time I was in school and learning about film scoring and studying it, I was one of the only women in the class. There weren’t that many of us. From what I heard now, it’s pretty much 50/50 in Music for Media classes. It’s hard to say, there are so many factors involved. People recommend their friends, women aren’t in the boys club, and there’s a lot of discussions to be had. It does feel like that tide is turning, and more women are breaking in and we’re hearing more diverse voices.
AF: What inspired you to be a composer?
CO: I was originally a musical theater composer. I was inspired by hearing music on stage and wanting to be part of that world. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I started listening to film music and thought I could do it.
AF: What are some of the differences about writing for the theater versus writing for television?
CO: Well in the theater, the musicians and the music writers are kings and queens. It all starts with them. The story is told through the song. The songs drive the action. On television, everything is the director’s vision or the showrunner and creator’s vision. The music is one of the supporting elements for what’s already there.
AF: I saw you were working on something called “Flies: The Musical.” Can you tell me about that?
CO: Yeah, my writing partner Larry Todd Cousineau and I met in college at UCLA and have been writing together on and off for many years. He had the idea that because there is so much chaos and darkness in the world right now, let’s write something that’s fun and silly. He came up with the idea of writing a parody of high school theater. So “Flies” is about a high school that is doing an unauthorized musical of “Lord of the Flies,” which is a dark and serious book. It’s sort of “Waiting For Guffman” meets “Glee.” It pokes fun at musical theater and pokes fun at the novel. It’s a lot of fun, the show just closed in Chicago and we’re hoping to bring it out to L.A. next. There’s also a chance we could make a film of it, which would be a lot of fun.
AF: What are some of your favorite shows or films you liked to listen to?
CO: When I was little, there was this movie about horses I saw as a kid that I loved. It was “International Velvet” with Tatum O’Neal that was about a girl and her horse. It had a beautiful score with a lot of piano in it by Frances Lai. I loved the movie, I loved the score so much, and I was taking piano lessons at the time. I saw it so many times I snuck in a tape recorder and recorded it so I could learn it back on the piano at home. I guess that was one of my first film score loves. It was an early orchestration lesson.
AF: How about recent work?
CO: I really loved Carter Burwell’s work on “Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It’s all sort of based around a song with an opera singer. There’s the one really wonderful scene that’s a genius collaboration between editing and music. When Francis McDormand is firebombing the station, it’s the song and I love the way it’s timed. I love the music and the sound effects, it’s a wonderful piece of filmmaking.
AF: What were some of the influences you brought with you to “Once Upon a Time” as you worked on those scores?
CO: Well I was doing a lot of death scenes. I think they’re emotional and sad, and I like to do work that is heartbreaking, yet uplifting. A death scene is a good occasion to bring those elements in. I did Belle’s death, and Snow White’s mother’s death, and Prince Charming’s Mother’s death. Probably a whole lot more I can’t even remember, but I do a good job on these scenes.
AF: Since these characters the show is based on come from existing Disney films, what is the give and take from the original scores of their movies?
CO: Mark and the team made the decision early on that we wanted to be wholly original. Most characters got new themes, but there are a couple of little sections where we nod to the original. We have used the “Beauty and the Beast” theme for Rumple and Belle. There was a scene where they’re dancing in the ballroom, in the same costumes, and it just felt right we should use the Alan Menken and Howard Ashman “Beauty and the Beast” song. There was a little bit with Snow White where we used the original theme from the original movie. It felt like such a tribute to the original film that we wanted to really to give the nod. However, 99% of the show uses all new themes.
AF: What is one moment from the show that you worked on that really showcases your talent?
CO: Well I did a lot of work on Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) and Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) relationship. I loved their theme, and I really loved that moment when he comes back to life. She’s standing at his grave and crying, and all of a sudden she hears his voice and he’s standing there. Their theme was sort of dark and operatic because a lot of things went wrong in their story. This was one of the only happy moments in the “Captain Swan” theme as the fans call it.
AF: Will we hear anything else about “Once Upon a Time” moving forward?
CO: There’s an exciting announcement coming regarding the music of “Once Upon a Time,” and I know the fans will be over the moon about it! It’s something they always ask about. And that’s all I can say at the moment!”
AF: What are some things you’re going to work on in the next couple months?
CO: Well speaking of things with female composers, there’s an event coming up with all female composers on September 4th, 2018 at The Wiltern and it features 10 women composers for film and TV. It’s called “The Future is Female” and it’s here in LA. I hope people will come out because we’re all writing something new for the show.
AF: I also saw that you’re associated with the Alliance for Women Film Composers. Is this through that organization?
CO: Technically it’s not through that organization, but there is a lot of crossover. It’s produced by Tori Letzler, who is on the board of the Alliance and several of us are members of the Alliance.
AF: Tell us about the role the Alliance is having in bringing women composers to the public.
CO: Yes! It’s a great advocacy organization that is a combination of PR and raising the profile of women composers and getting the word out there that there [are] already a lot of us. We exist and we do a lot of interesting things. They’re also partnering with a lot of organizations like BMI and Sundance and sort of helping to foster the inclusion of women in a lot of workshops and programs. The interesting thing is that Laura Karpman, one of the founders of the organization, hopes that in 5 years the organization will be obsolete. Women will be known and we won’t need an extra boost in publicity.
AF: I also saw that you took place in a San Diego Comic-Con panel last weekend. How was it going to the event as a panelist?
CO: It was so much fun. It was really great to see because I had never been to Comic-Con but had always wanted to go. It was great to see the energy and the devotion of the fans. So many people dress up and attend in costume, and buy and sell things. It really felt like these are the people we make these shows for.
AF: Well thank you so much for your time! I wish you the best of luck in the second leg of the Emmy season!
CO: Thank you so much!