INTERVIEW: Cindy O’Connor Talks Composing Once Upon A Time

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Cindy O’Connor is a true gem in the composer business, and her time as a composer on ABC’s hit show Once Upon A Time is a testament to just how talented she is. Her passion for creating music started at the young age of five and matured into an artist we can all be extremely thankful for. From the start of the series to the end, Cindy worked on Once Upon A Time as a composer, and occasionally even as a vocalist.

Apart from her work on Once Upon A Time, she has also worked on Starz’ Crash, and was an ensemble musician on the score of The Conjuring 2, The Hangover Part III, and Wreck-It-Ralph. Her immense talent allows her to tackle multiple unique genres and bring her diverse talents to each one. Cindy has also dabbled in musical theatre and co-created a Lord Of The Flies parody musical that was running in Chicago earlier this summer.

I truly enjoyed my conversation with Cindy as she told me about her background, her journey as a composer, and what her experience working on a show like Once Upon A Time was. Check out the wonderful conversation we had below!

You started writing music at a very young age! How did you get into it?
As a kid, I played piano and sang from a very young age. I always loved music and my parents took me to see musicals and concerts. I fell in love with live music and it took me a little bit longer to get into film music, even though I loved movies. I started out writing and performing in musicals and when I went to UCLA I studied theatre thinking I might want to be a performer. Although, a couple years in I decided that I liked writing a lot better.

As a performer, you’re limited to what you are like physically as a character. But as a writer and composer, you can be any character so I really loved the freedom of that. I wrote a couple musicals in college and when I graduated my writing partner and I had written a show that won the American College Theatre Festival so we wanted to start on another show after that. But at the time we needed some day job while we were writing what we thought would be our first Broadway hit.

Through a random connection, I got a day job with a composer named Mark Isham who has done hundreds of films, and some TV shows and is a trumpet player. He was a great person to assist and even though I started off answering his phone, I was really able to get a window into film scoring and just totally fall in love with it. And thought, wow how could I get into this world and this would be something I’d love to do. I took some classes; UCLA also has a film scoring program so I started taking classes there and studying privately for composing and orchestrating.

Mark was a great mentor because I asked him if I could just watch and be a fly on the wall and watch him do his thing. He could have let me just sit there and I would have been happy with that but he was really great about explaining everything and talking about his work process. It was really a fantastic training I got working for him and as he got busier he needed help orchestrating and arranging and booking orchestras so I learned how to do all the practical side of business as well – like budgets for different sizes and groups.

Because you have a musical theatre background, do you feel that was really helpful especially with a show like Once Upon A Time, that is very fairytale based. I’m curious to know if your background was a big advantage for you when working on a show like this?
Oh, definitely! Sometimes I joke because a show like Once Upon A Time that is very schematic and there are lots of melodies and every character has its themes, so a lot of times it does feel like we’re writing a musical. The place where you would put a song in a scene, is often where the score comes in. If two characters meet and hit it off, then all of a sudden a beautiful melody comes in. It’s not really that different from when you’re writing a musical and one of them launches into song – it’s the same thought process. Or in an action scene sort of the shape the music takes when the scene gets going is what you would do with that song.

You compose music for Once Upon A Time, a show very near and dear to me, and have been doing so since it first began. How has the journey been for you from start to finish and how has the music evolved along with the show?
It’s been amazing! The thing about a series that is multi-year like this you get to really grow and develop the music along with the characters. For example, Someone like Regina, the evil Queen, who in season one was a pretty much an evil cartoon character at the height of her evil. But as we get to know her and her character grows, we got to see a different side of her. Her music was no longer dramatic, but we got to explore a more personal, intimate music for her. And when she fell in love with Robin and got to have a love scene, the two of them got to have romantic music. And kind of all the characters had that sort of arc and their highs and lows, and their sorrows and joys. It’s been great to play along with them.

How did you use your music to bring life to some of the iconic fairy tales so many of us grew up with, and was it a lot of pressure given the connection many have with these characters and stories?
A little bit! The writers put their own spin on the characters. For example, Little Red Riding Hood was the wolf in Once Upon A Time, versus fighting against the wolf. And yes, there were certain Disney characters, like when The Little Mermaid came on. There was the movie and then the Alan Menken songs that everyone knows and love. However, we would always try and make something completely different. We sort of took that approach with all the characters even though they were from fairytale/Disney characters that everyone knows and loves. The one exception to this was with Rumpelstiltskin and Belle. They wanted to use some of the song, “Beauty and the Beast”.

When they decided they were basically going to restart Once Upon A Time in the 7th season, how did you go about tackling this musically, bearing in mind you would have new characters, semi-new plot, and a whole different curse to work with?
The main thing was that there were so many new characters and they all needed new themes and music. There were a lot of twists so at times we would start off with a character who seemed like they would be good, and we’d get the next episode and they would be evil. Like the character of Ivy, who was Victoria’s daughter, and she was sort of a sad bratty girl whose mother didn’t love her. And suddenly she turns out to be the mastermind of the curse and her music had to get more powerful and more evil. Several of the characters had to have evolutions like that. We started writing them one way and we’d realize the character would be different than we thought.

Who is your favorite character to work on in Once Upon A Time?
I loved Rumple and Belle because their relationships has had so many ups and downs. And we’ve gotten to do so many emotional flavors of their music. My other favorite is Emma and Hook. And one reason is that I actually wrote the Captain/Swan theme that we see a lot of over their relationship. And it was really fun to start that out in the beginning and I think it was season three that they starter to have flirty banter. And gradually it turns into real love and then both of them turn into the Dark One at different times. There were a lot of twists and turns in that relationship so their music was a lot of fun to write especially the huge dramatic scenes when she had to stab him so he could become the Dark One and they could go to the Underworld. Some of that was huge operatic music, so that was a lot of fun!

What is the creative process like for you from start to finish when you’re starting a project?
So I’ll use Once Upon A Time as an example to explain. If it’s a busy time, we only have one week for each episode. In a non-busy time we’ll have two weeks. For example, we’ll get the video footage on a Tuesday morning and myself, Mark Isham, and Mark Simon will sit down and we’ll decide who is going to do what. There is usually a bit of bargaining involved–we ask each other what scene do we really want to do and what scene do we really not want to do. And magically it aligns up that we all have different favorites that we like to do.

On this show we are very fortunate we have a huge team – we have all of the Disney music department for printing/copying, we have a couple orchestrator to help us flesh everything out. We only have from Tuesday to Saturday to get 24 minutes of music to the orchestrators. And they only have Sunday and then we record on Monday. We are very fortunate that we have live orchestra every week, and 26 players and we have them for about three hours. The most we can record is 24 minutes of music, and each episode has 40 minutes.

We have a great music editor, who has everything we’ve ever written for the last seven years. He’ll watch the episode first and see what he can fit in from what we already have. It’s the newer characters and storylines that need fresh music written for them. We have like three hours of Rumple being evil, so we don’t need to write that as something new.

You’ve done a wide variety of television shows (OUAT and Crash) and movies including horror (Conjuring 2), comedies (Hangover Part III), and animated movies (Wreck It Ralph). What have been the challenges creating music across different genres and what have been the most rewarding/exciting?
So I sang in ensembles for Hangover Part III, Conjuring 2, and Wreck It Ralph! It’s another fun thing I do – studio singing. A lot of these large movies have large choirs and you get to accentuate your score with the sound of a big choir. One of the funny ones was Hangover III because the choir was singing all cuss words. And I hear that they did a similar thing in Deadpool 2.

Do you prefer one over the other (singing vs. writing)?
It’s fun to have the variety of both! I got to sing on Once Upon A Time a couple of times. In episode 112, when Rumple and Belle first meet there is a cue that has an angelic soprano in the background, and that’s me! There’s another one in the Frozen era, I think season 4, there is a huge cue when the Snow Queen dies, and there is a wailing soprano over that, and that’s also me. Lastly, in the season 6 finale, when Lucy gets the book and it’s the first time we see her, and it’s sort of like here comes the new season – I sing there too!

If you could pick one movie/television show from the past or present to work on, what would it be and why?
I loved the series Smash that was a TV series about a Broadway show. I thought the songs of the show were fantastic, I would love to do something like that–a series that has songs in it. Or something like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that has a fun production number every week.

Do you have any future projects lined up we can look out for?
There are a couple of things that are not yet official but might be happening in the fall, so I’m hoping one of those gets going. And I’m doing a workshop this summer in the Czech Republic where I’m writing a new orchestral piece. We get to write and conduct, it’s a workshop for film and TV composers about live conduction. So we get to write and conduct a new piece with a Czech orchestra.

I want to hone my conduction because I love all the live concerts with film and TV music that have become such a trend. It would be great to do a project with something like that tied in. We talked about it for OUAT, but nothing has happened as of yet. It would be a cosplayer’s dream to be at a OUAT live orchestra concert – imagine all those Evil Queens in the audience.

For more news and updates from Cindy O’Connor, check out her Twitter.