By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jan 15, 2002 at 6:18 AM

Peter Buffett didn't start liking coffee until a few years ago. He tried a Starbucks Frappucino and enjoyed it, and that led him to try a mocha, which he also enjoyed. One caffeinated thing led to another, and now his drink of choice is a soy cappuccino.

The underlying story line of "one thing led to another" runs through the events that took Buffett from Omaha boy to musician/composer/recording artist to Milwaukeean. Along the way, Buffett composed part of the scores of "Dances with Wolves" and "The Scarlet Letter," opened a recording studio and composed a musical. He's hoping the last accomplishment will lead to a Broadway show.

Buffett grew up in Cornhusker country -- Omaha to be exact -- in much the same manner as his family before him. He attended the same high school as his grandfathers and had the same English teacher as his mother. When he graduated from high school he went to Stanford, but with no career path in mind.

"My first year I took everything that was 101 and ended in 'ology,'" says Buffett, 43.

Although he had played piano most of his life, Buffett made his foray into recording in the summer of 1977, when he returned home from his first year at Stanford. A friend had a recording studio, and Buffett was intrigued by the blending of music and technology. One thing led to another, and in 1979 Buffett quit Stanford, moved to San Francisco and opened a recording studio in his apartment.

"I basically was practicing on other people," he says. "At least I wasn't trying to be a doctor."

While in San Francisco, Buffett got a gig composing the score for a video show on San Francisco Public Television. That led to a 1981 meeting with an animator who was doing some logos for a then-unknown 24-hour music video channel called MTV, and Buffett did some of the channel's early scores.

"At the time, nobody knew about MTV," Buffett says. "I was unaware that I was getting involved in something hip and happening."

His MTV work led to a 15-year career writing scores for commercials, including Infinity automobiles, Sprint and CNN Headline News.

All the while, Buffett honed his own material. The 1980s saw the rise in popularity of New Age music, and its instrumental format served Buffett's interests well. In 1989 he moved to Milwaukee and got a contract with Narada Records, a label specializing in instrumental music.

He released his second album around the same time Kevin Costner was working on "Dances with Wolves." As is turned out, Buffett's vision for the album was inspired by Native Americans and the western frontier. Buffett knew someone who knew someone who knew Costner, and the album ended up in Costner's hands. The Hollywood star liked it and asked Buffett to score a scene in "Dances with Wolves."

"It was pretty unreal," Buffett says. "I remember thinking at the time that it doesn't get any better than this."

But perhaps it does. Buffett's latest project is to create a Broadway musical based on a play he composed in the mid-1990s. It all began in 1994 when CBS asked Buffett to write the score for "500 Nations," a show about Native American nations.

He scored the entire eight-hour series, and that led to the creation of a PBS show, "Spirit," which Buffett composed and which was recorded in 1998 at the Weidner Center on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus.

"Spirit is your classic hero story," Buffett says. "It basically is about a man tracing his Native American ancestry. It's a journey of self-discovery."

"Spirit" was choreographed by Wayne Cilento, who has choreographed such Broadway shows as "Aida" and "Tommy." The show aired on PBS during its 1999 pledge drive.

And that's just the start. Buffett is working with a team to mold "Spirit" into a Broadway-caliber show. He currently is composing new music for it, and the show's director likely will be Gil Cates, who produces the Academy Awards show every year. If all goes as planned, the show will begin touring in San Francisco next August and be in New York City by the Christmas holiday season of 2002, Buffett says.

For the record, his dad is investor Warren Buffett, but Jimmy Buffett isn't his cousin, although they might be distantly related.

"Jimmy and I met for lunch one day, and we got to talking and discovered there might be some bloodline there," Buffett says.

He's still in the music scene, operating a recording studio out of the Lake Drive home he shares with his wife, Jennifer. In the past he has worked with The Gufs and currently is recording a local Celtic harpist, Kim Robertson. And he still scores commercials for an agency in Chicago.

"It all just kind of worked out," Buffett says, finishing his soy cappuccino at the Downer Avenue Starbucks. "It's amazing when you look back on all the things that have happened in your life and see what has led you to where you are now. Things that at the time seem really minor sometimes end up being incredible stepping stones."