Friday, November 19, 2010

"Marvelous sweet music!"

In the course of my research, I frequently come across fun/entertaining/goofy items related to my current topic of investigation which, unfortunately, are not quite scholarly enough to incorporate into my educational writing for “Rehearsal Tools of the ASC.” Thus, I am discovering that this blog is the perfect outlet to share these random, bite-size bits and clips of information in a slightly less formal environment. Take, for example, what I have most recently been writing about: music. In searching out all there is to know on Shakespeare and music, I’ve become more and more aware of just how large a role this particular combination still plays in popular culture. A search for “Shakespeare” under the “Music” category on returns 884 results, encompassing everything from compilations of music popular in Shakespeare’s day to the Shakespeare in Love soundtrack; from Baby Einstein: Baby Shakespeare to Are You Shakespearienced? Heck, a person has only to turn on the radio to hear some toe-tapping Shakespeare. (A slightly different ending for Romeo and Juliet perhaps, but who hasn’t always wanted things to work out for those two, anyway?)

If one starts to pay attention, in fact, Shakespeare begins to turn up all over the place in music. Just listen closely to the lyrics in the Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast. In “The Mob Song” the evil Gaston encourages those torch and pitchfork wielding townspeople to “Screw your courage to the sticking place!” This is the same advice which Lady Macbeth offers her husband when he has second thoughts about their plot to kill King Duncan: “We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail” (Macbeth, 1.7.60-62). There’s an entire song in the hippie musical Hair based on Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” monologue (Hamlet, 2.2). And people still walk down the aisle to Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

All this is not, however, a new phenomenon. Practically since Shakespeare’s plays were first staged, it seems that people have had a fascination with turning Shakespeare into music and adding music to Shakespeare. Composer Benjamin Britten said, “I feel that everyone ought to set Shakespeare to music in order just to get to know the incredible beauty and intensity of these words." In 1960, Britten himself turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream into an opera, which still enjoys popularity today. A trailer for the English Touring Opera’s Spring 2010 production, featuring Thisbe’s “Asleep, my love?” speech (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.319) may be seen here.

When it comes to the whole Shakespeare/music trend, though, one of my personal favorites has to be Kenneth Branagh’s movie musical of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Yes, it’s cheesy, and sometimes borders on the bizarre, but it’s also a lot of fun. Set in a 1930’s-inspired Navarre, it features such hits of that decade as Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” and Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Showbusiness” (belted out by the always hilarious Nathan Lane as the clown Costard). Check out the film’s whacky rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” featuring Kenneth Branagh, Alessandro Nivola, Matthew Lillard, and Adrien Lester as the besotted Berowne, King Ferdinand, Longaville, and Dumaine, respectively, along with the objects of their affection.

Another 30’s-set, yet ever so slightly darker, Shakespeare is Ian McKellen’s Richard III, which plays out in an alternate universe Great Britain controlled by a fascist government. The movie opens cheerily enough, though, with Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” set to a swinging big band melody. The romantic, youthful tone of the lyrics provides a stark contrast to the dark, bitter mood Richard soon provides. In addition to Ian McKellen skulking about, keep an eye out also for Maggie Smith, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, and Robert Downey, Jr.

This is just a very (very, very) small sampling of some ways in which Shakespeare’s words have inspired a variety of musical outpourings. Some have been masterful…some not so much…and some have been just plain weird. But they have all entertained countless numbers of people – in addition to providing an entertaining diversion for me in the process of sorting through scholarly articles and primary sources. Shakespeare not only brought music to the stage in his day, but has since conquered Broadway and the pop charts, been turned into musical entertainment for the big screen and TV, inspired composers from Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky, and has spoken to almost every generation since his death through the musical medium. Pretty talented for a fellow who’s been dead for almost four hundred years…and who definitely never heard of Taylor Swift.

Natalie A.

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