How ‘White House Plumbers’ Composer Gave ’70s Drama a ‘Caper Movie’ Sound Using a Jazz Ensemble

Composer Jeff Cardoni found precisely the right sound for “White House Plumbers,” the five-hour miniseries about the Watergate burglars that debuted Monday on HBO: He revisited the 1970s musically, and it’s both effective and ultra-cool.

Cardoni, whose credits range from “CSI: Miami” to “The Kominsky Method,” scored “White House Plumbers” like a caper film, using both a small jazz combo and a larger, string-based orchestra depending on the scene. He likened the approach to a David Shire score from the ’70s, along the lines of “The Conversation” and (no surprise) “All the President’s Men.”

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Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux play E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the ex-CIA and FBI agents recruited by President Nixon’s re-election committee to dig up dirt on his Democratic opponents, bungled the job so badly that they wound up bringing down the entire Nixon administration. Director David Mandel plays it for both laughs and tragedy as their plans constantly go awry.

“It was a puzzle,” Cardoni admits. “I’ve never worked on something where it starts off one way and ends another. I had to find a through-line. The break-in is in episode 3, but there are a lot of blunders and a lot of dark comedy [prior to that]. Then it turns super-serious, dramatic and heavy. I had to figure out a way, instrumentation-wise, to get you from beginning to end but still feel like the same show.

“We don’t often get to do stuff this quirky or unique,” Cardoni adds. “It was fun to work on something where the score doesn’t have to settle into the background.”

Cardoni played piano, upright bass, guitar and drums, then enlisted a second keyboard player (for such classic ’70s sounds as Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3 and Wurlitzer organs and clavinet), a woodwind player who doubled on flute and saxophone, and a third musician on trumpet and trombone. Amazingly, they didn’t perform in the same room, but rather recorded remotely in separate studios.

He added 15 string players and two French horns for the first three episodes, and broadened it to 52 strings and four horns for the last two episodes to match “the heaviness of the story.”

Cardoni worked closely with Mandel on the music, discovering that smaller musical ideas were preferable. “As we got into the process,” he says, “it became apparent that there wasn’t room for a long 8-bar or 16-bar melody. So I came up with these two-to-four bar fragments. What became the main title started as Hunt’s theme, and that became Hunt and Liddy’s theme. I found with these little snippets it was easier to tie it all together.”

In addition to the main theme, there were secondary motifs for Liddy himself, Hunt’s wife Dorothy (Lena Headey) and Dita Beard (Kathleen Turner), the Washington lobbyist who became a pivotal early figure in the Watergate scandal. The Beard piece returns later, played by the brass, to represent “blind patriotism.”

After the scenes of the break-in and the arrests, Cardoni employed studio techniques to distort the music and “make it gnarly, as everything is getting progressively heavier. I was trying to show, emotionally, that they threw away their whole personal lives for country.”

The composer was no stranger to the people and places of “White House Plumbers.” He lived in Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s and “drove by the Watergate Hotel every day.” He even listened to Liddy’s radio show. “I thought he was entertaining,” Cardoni says.

Listen to the score below.

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