“The White Lotus” on HBO is loaded with compelling characters and escalating tensions that make Season 2 another splendid spectacle to behold. But it’s not just what we see on screen that makes writer-director Mike White’s trip to Italy so alluring — it’s what we hear. And this year, the original score is playing an even bigger role, through both the compositions and new cast of characters.
“It’s not like background music,” Emmy-winning composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer says, ahead of episode four. “The way they’re using the music is that they’re really pushing the music as if it was another character in the show.”
Right off the bat, the new and improved main title theme “Renaissance” — a hypnotic techno variation on that memorably melodic and operatic vocal riff from last season’s opening credits theme, “Aloha!” — sets the stage for the chaos to come: a week in beautiful, seaside Sicily, spoiled by the death of three people.
Who dies and whodunit are central questions from the start, giving viewers incentive to pay close attention to all of the conflicts between characters over the course of the seven-episode story arc. The new theme, aided by wild wallpaper depicting destruction, debauchery and death, suggests at least a few of the relationships that arrived by boat are about to burn. And when that beat drops, we know that these fires sparked from the depths of human frailty are going to ignite one hell of a watch party.
“It’s a very long burn compared to the last season,” Veer says. “This one, I really wasn’t expecting. The last two episodes, stuff just goes all the way dark and unexpected. It’s like, ‘Oh my God!’ When I saw the last episode, I told Mike I really was overwhelmed.”
Veer continues to tease, “The last episode is almost like a movie. It’s like an hour and 20 minutes or something, and it’s really unexpected stuff. It goes dark and messed up. It’s really interesting.”
That should be no surprise for fans, though, considering the series of unfortunate events that unfolded in Hawaii last season, which steadily induced anxiety through a rhythm of percussion and operatic vocals that crescendoed with the stabbing death of spiraling hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett). And even though we know there will be even more body bags being packed by the end of this trip, the score has a different feel.
“Sometimes the music in this show might seem more harmonious than Season 1,” Veer says. “In the sense that in Season 1 people would say that they got anxious because of the drums and all of the screaming and all that stuff. So, it was kind of the purpose of that, and now the music is a lot more beautiful in a way. I think it fits better with Italy.”
Veer collaborated with his manager Kim Neundorf, also a musician and composer, to finish original compositions due to his own scheduling conflicts, and credits her for bringing a more organic sound to the production instead of leaning on the electronic pulse of the remixed EDM theme music.
“Like the end of episode one, there is this very romantic, dramatic beat with opera, and it’s a very melodic thing. That stuff she came up with was inspired somehow by the theme, by the opera and all these classical instruments, so she brought in lots of acoustics into the score — Italian mandolins, violin, stuff like that,” he explains. “That’s why the score tends to sound maybe a little more organic or acoustic.”
The music isn’t setting the tone through score alone, though; it’s also informed by the addition of two characters who are musicians themselves.
There’s aspiring singer Mia (Beatrice Grannò), a local accompanying her escort friend Lucia (Simona Tabasco) on a mission to infiltrate the eponymous luxury hotel, and pianist Giuseppe (Federico Scribani), who reluctantly agrees to let Mia perform a surprisingly superb rendition of Sam Cooke’s “The Best Things in Life Are Free” — a song that directly contrasts the perspective and ambitions of the wealthy patrons she’s singing for. The tender moment was among the standout scenes, so far, because it adds another layer to a character that is clearly more complex than a simple sex worker out to make a buck. In the previous episode, Mia mentions she dreams of being a singer, and our minds naturally drift toward wondering if she’s actually any good. It’s a minor, but triumphant moment for Mia, who proves to both Giuseppe and the viewers beyond the fourth wall that yes, she actually is. And she wouldn’t have had the opportunity or the gall to do so without the encouragement of Lucia, making the joyful, proud prostitute even more likable than she already was, even if she may be luring her friend away from her more innocent nature.
Veer says that the inclusion of these characters in the script rubbed off on the character of the score, leading composers to incorporate more piano and vocals this season. “There was a little bit of piano in Season 1, but in this one, we went with a lot more more piano, but in a different way. I think there are romantic themes here and there with the piano, but there is something new.”
“Sometimes there are odd situations where the the husbands had been with with prostitutes,” he continues. “And then the girls, they pass by and this there’s this thing happening, this tension. But Mike told me that we need to feel like these people are mice in trouble somehow.”
White’s direction was to make these situations playful and funny, not necessarily dramatic, leading composers to incorporate a staccato style of piano performance, which Veer describes as feeling “almost like a cartoon or something.”
It’s part of White’s effort to avoid portraying the girls as broken-down or victimized sex workers audiences may be used to seeing on the screen by now. “Everything relating to the to the girls, to the prostitute, [White] didn’t want to have an edge,” Veer explained. “He didn’t want these girls to feel evil, or that bad things are coming because of these girls.”
They’re simply on a mission to make money and have fun, and so far, it seems like they’re doing pretty well for themselves. It’s the fellas in the show that are on the verge of breaking down, as viewers saw at the end of episode three, when college pals Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Cameron (Theo James) recruit the escorts for a night of infidelity while their wives are off on their own overnight adventure. The scene, showing Cameron bedding Lucia while an inebriated Ethan resists temptation to indulge beyond a short kiss with Mia, is a great example of what makes the “White Lotus” score so affective. It’s actually hard to imagine the show working as well as it does without the work of Veer and Neundorf, who interpreted the sex scenes as more dramatic than sensual when reading the script, and made a gut decision to create a darker soundscape, reeling viewers in to truly feel Ethan’s guilty conscience.
“Sometimes you hear R&B kind of music in sexy scenes in movies and stuff,” Veer says. “But we were feeling the sexy scenes more dramatic, so I guess that’s where the more operatic things come in. A little bit dark. There’s lots of tension related to the sex scenes, and sometimes it goes all the way dark.”