Thursday, November 20, 2008

FLASHBACK: Soaps Stud Evolves Into Composer

Miami Herald
Dec 15, 1996

On AS THE WORLD TURNS, he was Frank Wendell, a wife-beating husband and callous father. On GUIDING LIGHT, he played Robinson, the crusading young district attorney. On LOVING, he was Flynn Reily, a handsome hunk. And in John Waters' wacky Hairspray, he was a rock singer.

But when Keith Pruitt walks on stage to perform with the Florida Philharmonic this week, he'll be doing the serious work he's always wanted to do -- as soloist in the world premiere of his own piano concerto.

From soap opera stud to serious classical composer? That's about as likely as Sly Stallone molting into Shostakovich.

"Life is weird," understates Pruitt, 33, whose publicity photos still look far more suitable for Soap Opera Digest than CD Review.

"I already knew I wanted to write music when I was 6. The trouble is that it took 20 years -- after doing everything that everybody else wanted me to do -- until I really started my musical career."

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Pruitt has done nicely. In just five years, two of his scores have been choreographed by Robert LaFosse and danced by Heather Watts and Jock Sotto with the New York City Ballet. A third work has been played by the New York Chamber Ensemble and a fourth by Canada's Regina Symphony, and the Florida Philharmonic performed Movement for Orchestra in 1993.

It was such a crowd-pleaser that Pruitt was asked to write another score. The result is his Second Piano Concerto, which he calls "a power piece, really wild and completely different from Movement for Orchestra ," which was a nostalgic, 15-minute mood piece reminiscent of Mahler. "After this concerto," says the composer, "I think I'll have to write something pure and simple, maybe a choral work, and stay away from the piano for a while."

The latter is not likely. Pruitt says working at the keyboard is what stimulates his musical imagination -- and what led him into composing in the first place.

Musical childhood

Growing up in Wichita, Kan., he wasn't the product of a music-minded family. Pruitt's father, a chemical engineer, played a bit of trumpet, and his mother saw to it that Keith and his older brother and sister received piano lessons. "But my folks got burned when my brother and sister quit playing after a few years, so I kind of had to fight for my piano lessons," he says.

Even when the boy demonstrated talent early, he had trouble getting much attention. At 4, he was plinking out tunes on the piano, and soon was entertaining his father's clients at dinner with songs he had written. "But I think I just embarrassed my dad by forcing everyone to listen," he says.

In high school, in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., where his family had moved, the wannabe composer was always bending his friends' ears, too. "When they came over to my house, I'd try to get them to listen to what I was doing musically. But they'd always say, `Aw, do we have to? Come on, forget it, let's go.' "

Pruitt even had to put his music on the back burner after he graduated high school at 17 to attend Duke University. "Though I entered there on a piano scholarship, my major was French, and I did comparative studies in Western Europe and the Soviet Union because my parents thought I should go to law school." But after graduating summa cum laude and making Phi Beta Kappa, Pruitt surprised everyone.

He enrolled in the Cincinnati Conservatory -- to study acting.

CBS audition

"At Duke," he explains, "I was the music director of several shows, like West Side Story , and I enjoyed them so much I wanted to try acting." He wound up staying only a year, moving back home for a while and then on to New York. But around this time, Pruitt auditioned for Hairspray (which starred Ricki Lake and Divine). He was cast as a rock star, and his acting career was launched. Later, he auditioned for CBS and made it onto AS THE WORLD TURNS.

Not that Pruitt abandoned music. With his high-paying job as a cushion, he resumed studying music, working toward a Ph.D. with composer David Del Tredici at the City University of New York.

Del Tredici was astonished to discover that Pruitt, who had composed a piano sonata that already had been prominently performed at Merkin Hall in New York, didn't even know much about the sonata form. He was so instinctively gifted that he managed to pick up much of what he hadn't known fast, though he says he's still mastering the art of orchestration.

Though today he deems acting in the soaps "boring," at first he found As the World Turns a lot of fun. Playing an abusive husband and an uncaring father "was so different from who I am, that I really loved acting this bad guy." But later, Pruitt, who is gay, encountered subtle sexual discrimination on the set of one of his other network shows, he says. A producer took him aside to tell him that he'd been spotted in gay bars, and that it wouldn't do for that kind of news to get out to his soap fans.

"A lot of people on soaps who are gay go into the closet when they get a certain role," says Pruitt. "But I told this guy, `Look: I'm who I am and I can't change.' " Ultimately, the show was canceled.

Victim in N.Y.

Three years ago in Manhattan, Pruitt was the victim of a much blunter form of discrimination: While walking with a friend, he was attacked by gay bashers with golf clubs. Pruitt's companion suffered broken ribs, and the composer suffered a cracked skull and four-inch dent in his head -- and temporarily lost hearing in one ear.

"For a while I spoke to activist groups about gay bashing, and I thought my career in the soaps might be finished," he says. But CBS soon signed Pruitt to GUIDING LIGHT, a role he sustained for a year and a half, leaving in August (he did make a cameo in October, and he hasn't completely closed the door on the soaps, because the money is better than what most composers make).

"But the focus of my life now is music," Pruitt says. "With the soaps, the minute I achieved what I wanted I realized that really wasn't what I wanted, after all." What he wants now is to become a composer in residence with an orchestra so he can fully express the musical inner life he has nurtured from childhood.

"I think Keith's music is very much like himself," says Dewey Seid, a New York sculptor, friend and mentor of the composer: "It's basically very emotional and neo-Romantic yet highly charged and driven by his own intuitive, personal, existential vision."

1 comment:

  1. It's such a shame to lose someone so caring and talented.