Look with thine ears

I have a love-hate relationship with both musical theatre and Taming of the Shrew. Actually, hate is too strong of a word. Musical theatre was, as one of my professors so aptly describes it, my gateway drug to the world of plays, so I have to give credit where credit is due. There are lots of superpbly built musicals out there that prove how useful song and dance can be when combined with storytelling. All too often though, one comes along that abuses its use of music, smothering any real meaning under layers of glitter and spectacle. My mixed feelings about Taming of the Shrew are complicated, so I won’t go there right now.

But it stands to reason that I love Kiss Me Kate. It’s a musical-within-a-musical, a 1940s Baltimore theater company producing a song and dance version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. What I love about Kiss Me Kate is how it both lauds and mocks its own genre; the musical numbers  actually add to the movement of the story (which is admittedly very thin; half the musical is taken up by the meta play), but they pretty obviously don’t take themselves very seriously. Ironically, the music in their arduous production detracts from Shakespeare’s story, but in terms of my  Lear research, that’s where the musical is so valuable. It points out a very potent danger with staging Shakespeare, that fine line between finding meaning and diluting the story by adding music. And heck, I could love it for this song alone:

According to The Globe’s exhibition, there are more than 4,000 musical references in Shakespeare’s plays. The bard’s own company aquired a group of musicians with the Blackfriars Theatre in 1608, and they probably converted a room in The Globe into a musicians’ gallery. For outdoor performances, audiences usually listened to trumpets, shawms, sackbuts and cornetts; indoor instruments were gentler, wiht lutes, viols and keyboard instruments. The trumpeters were especially integral to Elizabethan performances, something I got my fair share of during Richard III and Twelfth Night last week. They blew fanfares, or surges, to announce when a play was about to begin, and then a sennet, or flourish, to announce the entry and exit of royalty (stage directions indicated in King Lear). A roll of drums or trumpet-calls from within announced an alarum, a retreat or a parley were standard ways to signal a battle going on off-stage.

I was treated to not only two magnificent performances at the Apollo Theater recently (after succesful runs at The Globe outdoor theater) but what could probably be considered pretty lengthy Jacobean musical concerts as well. The musicians were as much a part of the play as the actors; they were onstage before they moved up to the rafters during the play, keeping the audience entertained as the actors got into costume and makeup. Even when they were playing well above the actors’ heads, they stayed part of the action, reacting to the play when they weren’t needed and announcing scene changes and mood shifts. An excerpt from the 2000 Globe Musicians’ Guide: Live music plays a key role in Globe performance. The absence of set and lighting means that The Globe is a theatre in which the aural (as opposed to the visual) experience is key, music must replace many of the effects normally available in the stage director’s repertoire. In a theatre without blackouts, music must punctuate and focus the action. This also means that anythhing aural presented int he globe space during perfocmance will necessarily form part of the action: therefore musicians will often be required to play on the stage or in the yard, suually appear in costume, and will often be required to play  cues from memory.

In the 2001 Globe King Lear recording I watched, music stitched the scenes together, particularly useful in a play where the action bounces so quickly from a heath to a castle again and again. One of the most hautning elements of the entire production was an eerie female voice that crooned throughout some of the sequences; I found in the prompt book later that this was meant to be “Cordelia’s Voice,” a symbol of Lear’s guilt underscoring the action of the entire play.

The 2008 King Lear was especially notable because the musical director chose ‘Celtic’ British music as her inspiration. She emphasized in her notes that the instruments — voice, shawms, bagpipes, sackbuts, long trumpets, recorders, drums, oud, hurdy-gurdy and symphony — might have belonged to Shakespeare’s period, but the music did not in any sense belong to the Reniassance.  She was especially influenced by the Irish and Scottish use of the ballad singer, so like the 2001 version, this King Lear had a single, female voice throughought. Unlike the earlier version, this singer made occasional onstage appearances, and she voiced very clear, meaningful lyrics. Composer Claire van Kampen said the singer “combiness the voice of narrator, commentary and bard. She spins her commentary on the human condition, not in Gaelic but in Old English, using words from ‘The Wayfarer’ and ‘The Seafarer,’ poems which preserve a vivid idea of the last days of the Anglo-Saxon world before it was dragged into a new age by William the Conquerer.” I especially loved the lyrics she provided from the former poem: Therefore I cannot think/ why, throughout this world,/ my spirit does not darker grow/ when i think upon/ the lives of men,/ how they have on a sudden left the hall,/ the proud young retainers. – and so this middle-earth/ each day in some part/ ails and falls away –/ and no man should think/ himself wise before he has/ laid up a store of years in this world…-a wise man ought to hold fast/ never be too hasty, nor too rash in speech/ nor too weak a warrior, nor too careless/ nor too cautious, nor too glad,/ nor too greedy for things,/ never too eager for fame,/ before he knows truly….- a wise man should grasp/ how dreadful it will be,/ when all this world’s wealth/ wasted stands–/as now, here and there,/ around this middle-earth/ stand walls, wind-beaten,/ hoar-frosted, storm-broken dwellings.”

Even the modernized Julius Caesar I saw last week used music throughout, albeit in a significantly less meaningful way. I’m not sure how a gang of female prison inmates got ahold of expensive rock instruments, but somehow Brutus found a drum set on which he/she was wheeled on for battle, and one inmate occasionally felt the need to bash out chords on his/her bass guitar. These seemingly random musical interruptions, combined with strobe lights and occasional deviations from the text to scream “Fuck,” were more distracting than evokative. Which proves how much of an influence, positive and negative, music really can have in a Shakespearean production.

I’m looking forward to where our music will take us at this stage. We are aiming for a more theatrical, presentational depiction of the play, so I think music will only enhance our direction. It’s certainly useful to look at examples of music used in other productions, including Shakespeare’s original stagings, to stay on track.

On another note, I’m in Stratford! After a confusing train ride and having to borrow a stranger’s phone to call a cab, I enjoyed probably the best night of sleep I’ve ever had (I’m not even exagerating a little bit), gorged on a giant English breakfast and spent my whole day in the Birthplace Trust archives. More to follow. Cheers!

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