Songwriting with the Bard
“If music be the food of love, play on.”
-Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1.
Mister Shakespeare gave us lots of great words, but not a whole lot of catchy tunes. What this means to modern directors and sound designers/composers is: when you put up a Shakespeare show that has songs in it, you have to write the music. This actually works out well for those directors who decide to set their production in some other setting besides Elizabethan England (which it seems is most directors these days), as they don’t have to somehow defend the existence of 17th century music in, say, New York in the 1930s or Sydney in 2006 or Mars in the 35th century.
The last two Shakespeare shows I’ve designed, “Measure For Measure” and “As You Like It” contain six songs between them, which has presented me with lots of opportunities to “collaborate” with Old Will on some tunes. I generally try not to listen to what other composers have done with these songs so that I don’t get locked into melodies, so when my brother handed me Barenaked Ladies’ version of the “As You Like It” music I listened to it once and then tried my best to forget it. Once my director had approved all of my demos I went back and listened to the BNL record again to make sure I didn’t inadvertently cop any of their ideas (we’re safe).
Here’s a few examples of the music I came up with for the two shows. I invite any composers reading this to post links to their own interpretations of these songs. I think it’ll be fascinating to hear the different approaches.
Under the Greenwood Tree: the director for “As You Like It” wanted to set the show in the late 1950s, moving through the early ‘60s to about 1966/early ’67. The show opens with this song, presented as a rockabilly number complete with “Jordanaires” backup vocals. The backup vocals played for the show, but the lead vocal was performed by the actor onstage. This version features the demo vocal.
Blow, Thou Winter Wind: later in “As You Like It’ we’re closer to the mid-1960s, so this song is more reminiscent of the jangly British Invasion pop music of 1964/65. Once again, this vocal is the demo version and the vocal was performed live for the show.
Moated Grange Blues: Promethean Theatre’s “Measure For Measure” was set in a modern New Orleans-but-not-really-New-Orleans, and this blues interpretation of the song that opens Act 4, Scene 1 was played as if Mariana was hearing it on her iPod. The vocal is by Herman Wilkins.
Whiles A Wedlock Hymn: One of the final songs in “As You Like It;” in our production the character Hymen appears as a man in drag, lip-sync’ing to an old girl-group hit. Vocal by Karla Beard.