Brush Up Your Shakespeare

I love Shakespeare. I've read all the plays and seen most of them live or on video. I don't love every play he wrote -- I don't think King Lear really works unless you cut the shit out of it, and honestly, I never gave a shit what happened to that nasty old coot anyway -- but I love most of them.

Partly (I think) because so many of the conventions and devices of American musical theatre come from Shakespeare. I was lucky that my early encounters with Will were all cool ones, so it was easy to learn to love his work. And the more I've learned about and studied musical theatre, the more I can see the links. The soliloquy, the "interior monologue," was one of Shakespeare's favorite tools, and it's also a mainstay of musical theatre. Virtually every musical includes at least one song (often more than that) in which a character literally just tells us what he thinks and feels, usually just standing downstage and singing directly to us. Some directors try to concoct "naturalistic" staging -- usually in the form of wandering around the stage -- that tries to make a soliloquy seem natural.

But it's not.

It's a very artificial storytelling device. Shakespeare and musical theatre happily admit that. Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn't bring themselves to acknowledge it, so desperate they were to create naturalistic musical theatre.

Which is like trying to create a politician without an ego.

Of course, the most obvious similarity between Shakespeare plays and musicals is verse -- heightened, compressed, often rhymed language, often full of alliteration, metaphor, symbolism, and loaded with subtext. It's a very dense kind of storytelling, but audiences have lots of practice taking it in. Read out loud the lyric of & Sondheim's song "Now" from A Little Night Music, and you'll see what I mean. It sounds so much like a Shakespearean soliloquy...

Maybe the most important, most fundamental thing Shakespeare and musical theatre (and Brecht) share is that they don't really care all that much about the venerated "willing suspension of disbelief." They constantly remind their audiences that This Isn't Real. Almost all films and many plays without music try to convince the audience what they're seeing is real, but we all know it's not, right? Why try to hide the act of storytelling? This is the only time in human history we've felt like we have to hide our storytelling. It's so dishonest.

Shakespeare and musicals aren't afraid of artifice, or of asking the audience's participation in the act of storytelling. No audience at a good Shakespeare play or a good musical is passive. Just look at the beginning of Henry V, when the Chorus asks the audience to supply the sets and locations... Or the opening of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, when the actors ask the audience to place Jackson and the politics of 1824 in the present cultural zeitgeist, and to process the dissonance that creates...

Even when Will doesn't use actual music in his plays (though he does that a lot), his language is inherently musical, some of it like jazz, some of it like a bawdy folk song, some of it like an aria. I've found that a lot of musical theatre actors tend to do Shakespeare particularly well, once they realize that doing Shakespeare is a lot like doing a musical.

There have been lots of bad musicals based on Shakespeare plays (Swingin' the Dream, Music Is, Rockabye Hamlet, All Shook Up), and a few decent ones (Kiss Me, Kate, Your Own Thing, The Donkey Show), but there are some great ones too, like the landmark West Side Story, the totally awesome Bomb-itty of Errors, and the dated but fun and tuneful Boys from Syracuse. And a new musical version of Love's Labour's Lost opened in July 2013 at the Public Theatre in New York, written by the Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson team.

And then there are the three "Shakespearean" musicals New Line has produced, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and bare...

Return to the Forbidden Planet is a wacky but insightful mashup of 1950s sci-fi, classic rock and roll, and Shakespeare's final masterpiece The Tempest -- as well as bits of dialogue from a dozen other Shakespeare plays. In fact, since directing and studying this show, now almost every time I see a Shakespeare play, I hear quotes from Forbidden Planet. Which I love. The plot comes from both The Tempest and the 1956 film Forbidden Planet (the first big-budget studio sci-fi movie), which is loosely based on The Tempest. The show's score is all actual rock and roll songs, like "Good Vibrations," "Tell Her," "She's Not There," "Great Balls of Fire," "Teenager in Love," and lots of others. Part of what's such fun about this show is how well the songs are integrated into the story; this is a big step above Mamma Mia! The show's dialogue is a crazy but surprisingly coherent mix of actual Shakespearean dialogue from a whole bunch of different plays (a lot of King Lear and Julius Caesar), plus a little bit of faux Shakespeare written by the show's creator Bob Carlton. (We dubbed it "fake-speare.") It's a smart, funny, original, well-crafted, and occasionally very emotional show, written by someone who clearly knows and loves Shakespeare. And it's a hell of a ride for the audience.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a 1971 rock musical adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with music by Galt MacDermot (Hair). Originally, the idea was just to set a song that's already in the play ("Who Is Syliva?"), but it ended up being a full-blown musical, along the way editing the script down and eliminating the more awkward plot elements (it was one of Will's first plays, after all). Again, it's a wild, wonderful ride, full of crazy comedy, great songs, real human insight, and some complicated moral questions...

bare, the pop opera, is not really an adaptation of Shakespeare, but like other stories have done before, bare uses Romeo and Juliet as a plot device and as a parallel to the primary plot, this time though, making the central romance a gay story, but keeping the lovers' age consistent with the play. Composer Damon Intrabartolo sets several scenes from R&J in a musical style I call Elizabethan pop. It would be easy to fall into cliche using this most famous Shakespeare play in this way, but bare avoids that trap, partly because it's just so original, and partly because even though the primary plot is related to Romeo and Juliet, the two stories aren't directly parallel -- and the divergences between them allows bare to keep the audience guessing.

It was so cool working on all three of these shows, and I wonder now if I'd want to direct an actual Shakespeare play sometime. I think I might...

My early experiences with Shakespeare were all great. I saw my first Shakespeare play in high school, when we went to see a mind-blowing Richard III at the Rep -- it was so rowdy and violent and nasty and funny! I immediately fell in love with The Bard. Then in college, I took a year-long Shakespeare course under one of America's great Shakespearean scholars, Marjorie Garber. She really taught me to love these plays, how to catch all the dirty jokes and puns, and how to see inside these amazing works. About that same time, I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream on cable, a 1981 production by the New York Shakespeare Festival (unfortunately never released on video), directed by Jim Lapine, choreographed by Graciele Daniele, and starring William Hurt as Oberon and Christine Baranski as Helena. And once again, it blew my mind -- it was so high-energy, so crazy and chaotic, so sexy, so utterly hilarious -- everything I knew Shakespeare ought to be. I still have this production on video and I watch it about once a year. Pure genius.

There are two many productions of Shakespeare that are bland, timid, boring, safe, and all-round clueless. And when people see these productions, they conclude they must not like Shakespeare. But they're wrong. They just don't like bad theatre.

There are a few clips from Lapine's Midsummer on YouTube:

Later on, I saw the incredible documentary Looking for Richard, in which Al Pacino explores Richard III, with help from people like Kevin Kline, John Gielgud, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Vanessa Redgrave, and lots of other amazing theatre people. This is one my favorite movies ever and I watch it frequently.

Thanks to Netflix and Amazon, we can now see Kevin Kline's HamletIan Holm's King Lear, Patrick Stewart's Macbeth, and so much more. In the last few years, I've also discovered some wonderful Shakespeare documentaries. The outstanding four-part biographical documentary In Search of Shakespeare is so much fun, not only learning about Will, but seeing how his life and times influenced his work, and seeing actual places where he lived, worked, and played. Shakespeare Uncovered is a very cool series of one-hour episodes exploring one Shakespeare play at a time (sort of like Looking for Richard), with people like Trevor Nunn, Jeremy Irons, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke, and Derek Jacobi. And Playing Shakespeare lets us sit in on nine intensive acting workshops with the Royal Shakespeare Company, with actors like Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen.

For anybody who's hesitant to jump into the world of Shakespeare, let me recommend an excellent book, The Friendly Shakespeare, a really clever, accessible, and insightful survey of the whole canon. And there's a cool series of books called No Fear Shakespeare, with the original text on the left side and a contemporary translation on the right side. It makes it easy to look up any difficult passages, and to get a clearer sense of more complicated or more poetic scenes. When we worked on Forbidden Planet, we kept a copy of the No Fear edition of The Tempest at rehearsals, and it came in handy.

I always feel bad when musical theatre artists tell me they don't like Shakespeare. I always assume it's because either they haven't seen a Shakespeare play, or they've only seen clueless, bland, and/or boring productions. I mean, how could someone not love Shakespeare?

But I also feel bad because not enough of us working in the musical theatre today know how much we can learn from Shakespeare and his plays. American musical comedy, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the rock musical, pop opera -- all of it stands on Shakespeare's shoulders, and we don't really understand our art form until we understand his work.

I always tell young musical theatre actors they should take dance classes, but I also tell them they need to see and read some Willy Shakes...

Brush up your Shakespeare,
And they'll all kow-tow...

Long Live the Musical! And The Bard!