“The thing that I love to do is solve puzzles,” Theodore Shapiro says. “And to me, every score is like a puzzle that you crack.”
For two decades, Shapiro has been solving cinematic puzzles both light and dark. He’s scored some of Hollywood’s classic comedies—including Old School, Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball, and Blades of Glory—as well as Paul Feig’s hilarious, female-powered films (Spy, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call). He’s also cracked the code of political dramas (the Emmy-nominated Game Change, Trumbo), animated adventures (The Pirates: Band of Misfits and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, which earned him an Annie nomination), and unconventional adventures (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and mysteries (A Simple Favor).
He pulled a jazzy score with Gene Hackman in Heist, accentuated the tyranny of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, made the tears flow in Marley & Me, and found the humanity in an incorrigible Bill Murray in St. Vincent. His score for the dark police drama, Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman was described by The A.V. Club as “knife-on-bone.” His most recent score for Bombshell, a drama about sexual harassment at Fox News, is evocatively centered around wordless female vocals.
That versatile, musical codebreaking began when Shapiro was five, drawn to the family piano like a magnet. Growing up in a household where music was “part of the ambient ethos,” in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., his diet was a healthy mix of Debussy and the Beatles, and he kept on playing music through high school and college.
After majoring in music at Brown University, where he also scored and acted in theater, he sharpened his compositional skills at Juilliard—studying with renowned composer John Corigliano. His classical chops took him to the concert hall, where his works have been performed by orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, and the New York Chamber Symphony.
But his first love, ever since he got sucked into the cinematic adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark and fell under the spell of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Chinatown as a boy, was the movies.
“The idea of marrying composition with some sort of a narrative format, that was what spoke most to me,” he says. “I always liked the wide accessibility of film, and the openness of film scoring as a medium. I feel like movies have such a wide open canvas that they encompass—and that has always excited me.”
So when his fellow Brown alums, Michael Showalter and David Wain, co-created the sketch comedy series The State for MTV, Shapiro was eager to write for the screen. He was simultaneously scoring student films for another former classmate, John Hamburg, who introduced Shapiro’s outsized talents to the future filmmakers at NYU—and soon a full-fledged film scoring career was born.
After the success of his first feature, the Sundance darling Hurricane Streets, and the Michelle Rodriguez-starring boxing drama, Girlfight, Shapiro had Hollywood’s attention. He’s since collaborated with top-flight filmmakers, including Karyn Kusama, Paul Feig, Ben Stiller, Jay Roach, David Mamet, and David Frankel.
Shapiro treats each film, whether playing for laughs or drama, with a musical seriousness that not only demonstrates his serious technique—but strengthens the movies in the process. There’s nothing funny about how good Shapiro makes every film look, which is why no genre has been able to contain him. No matter the mood, the director, or the star… they’re all puzzles.
“Whether it’s coming up with the right melodic material, or instrumental choices, or even just solving individual cues and how to tell the story in the best way,” he says, “that just fascinates me, and I love the challenge of it, and I love the process of it. It’s really that part of my person that loves to decode things and work out these problems that drives my creative process, and makes my job really fun.”