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A musical ‘Three Musketeers’ worthy of Dumas

Michael Thurber. Courtesy From the Top

There’s a lesson in the fact that the young composer Michael Thurber’s artful new orchestral “play for instruments” based on the tale of “The Three Musketeers’’ was inspired by one of the worst movie adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’s much-copied swashbuckler.

“It’s embarrassing, really,” said Thurber, laughing, in a recent phone conversation, “but the first exposure I had to it was the really [lousy] version with Charlie Sheen.” That version, released in 1993, when Thurber was 7, gets almost everything wrong, from tone to action to uniquely catastrophic casting. The soulful, sophisticated musketeer Aramis effortlessly escapes Sheen’s attempt to play him; the even more soulful and sophisticated Athos similarly eludes Kiefer Sutherland; and Chris O’Donnell plays D’Artagnan as if recovering from a terrible accident in which 17th-century chest-hair electrolysis turned into pioneering electroshock therapy. But there was just enough of the original’s elegance and wit remaining in even this wretched rendition of it to fire the imagination of Thurber, who eventually found his way to Dumas’s novel.


Certain characters and their stories lend themselves to repetition and variation. Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Tarzan, Cinderella, Robin Hood, and Dracula all go on that list, along with the Three Musketeers and their friend D’Artagnan, a paradigmatic young optimist from the provinces hellbent on making it in the big city. Each entry on the list has been frequently reinvented, updated, and copied, and one key to this replicability is that each character can be reduced to a concise set of essential identifying markers. As Raymond Chandler, the inventor of Marlowe, said of Sherlock Holmes, he is “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” If a new version gets those markers right, or even just acknowledges them by altering them in a purposeful and inspired way, it can fool around with the basic model almost at will — although the process is certainly not foolproof, as illustrated by Hollywood’s repeated failure to capture the essence of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.

There have been hundreds of adaptations and ripoffs of “The Three Musketeers” since it was first published in 1844. Dumas himself, aided by uncredited collaborators, produced numerous sequels, and then came a seemingly endless train of successors — from the Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly movie versions to Richard Lester’s dope-smoking 1970s versions to Charlie Sheen and company, from “Barbie and the Three Musketeers” to “Sex Adventures of the Three Musketeers” to musicals, video games, and more.


Now comes Thurber, a self-described “art-repreneur” who attended Juilliard and has made a name for himself by creatively bringing his classical training to fresh forms and venues, including collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company and as part of the YouTube sensation CDZA. His “Three Musketeers,” a 20-minute concerto that premieres later this month on the NPR program “From the Top” and will be available for download from its website next week, follows D’Artagnan through one of the novel’s memorable early setpieces: the young hero arrives in Paris, encounters each of the three musketeers in turn, is challenged by each to a duel, and ends up on their side in a battle with the Cardinal’s guards.

Building on a foundational eight-note theme and giving each soloist opportunities for expressive cadenzas, the piece embodies each of the main characters in a different instrument. Charles Yang’s violin gives D’Artagnan an aspirational swagger and athletic virtuosity. Kris Bowers’ jazz-inflected piano gives depth to Aramis, the pious ladies’ man. Mark Dover’s clarinet portrays the endearing blowhard Porthos. Thurber’s upright bass gives the melancholy, avuncular Athos the two-edged quality of danger and regret that defines his character.


The soloists are all longtime musical friends, going back to Juilliard and Interlochen, and part of the appeal of the Three Musketeers template for Thurber was that it provided a model of virtuosic partnership. “I wrote the parts expressly for my friends,” Thurber said, and the cadenzas allow each player to put his improvisational mark on the piece every time they perform it. “It’s so through-composed that there’s not unlimited room to change it, and once they’d done it the first time there was a mold,” he said. “But still, every time it’s performed it’ll be a little bit different.”

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.”

Watch: The making of ‘The Three Musketeers’

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated that Thurber graduated from Juilliard. He attended, but did not graduate.