Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare, a months-long homage to the Bard by some two dozen theater, dance and musical groups in the region, is filled with music, from a burlesque “Romeo + Juliet” to the musical “Kiss Me, Kate.”
“Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.”
— from “The Merchant of Venice”
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We don’t know much about William Shakespeare the man, but we know a lot about Shakespeare the writer. And it’s safe to assume that he was a music lover.
Many references to music (some 2,000) glimmer through his works, and his scripts often include lyrics to songs meant to be sung onstage.
Though other Elizabethan playwrights included lyrics in their texts, the Bard of Avon inserted more than usual. And he was innovative in even folding songs into such tragedies as “King Lear.”
Over the centuries, the Bard’s sonnets, dramas and comedies have also inspired musical expressions by countless composers from Mendelssohn (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) to Elton John (“The King Must Die”) to Taylor Swift (“Love Story”).
It is fitting, then, that Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare, an homage by some two dozen theater, dance and musical groups in our region, is rife with music. The celebration kicks into high gear this month and runs into the summer, but Seattle Opera got a head start last month with its rendering of the Berlioz-scored opera “Beatrice and Benedict” (set to close March 10), based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Alongside numerous play productions (“The Merchant of Venice” and “Shakespeare in Love” by Seattle Shakespeare Company, and “Mac Beth” at Seattle Repertory Theatre, among others), here are some of the more music-saturated offerings in the commemorative buffet. While perusing, you might take the advice of Caliban, in “The Tempest”: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
Gag-laden parodies of classics by Shakespeare, Chaucer and other literary giants go way, way, way back. But since the last century, American burlesque has been synonymous with saucy variety shows featuring comic skits and women artfully disrobing to music.
Given the popularity of neo-burlesque in Seattle, it’s not surprising to find this item among the Shakespeare tributes:
“Romeo + Juliet”: One of the most performed in the canon, the tale of blighted adolescent love is also one of the most parodied.
At the tiny Pike Place Market supper club Can Can, you can expect original music and choreography, along with glittery dance numbers, lacy lingerie, daring young women on the trapeze and sexy lovers in this modernized version of the story.
In Elizabethan England during Shakespeare’s time, music was an integral part of many theater productions. It was also enjoyed in chamber concerts at Queen Elizabeth I’s court, in madrigal recitals, religious gatherings and in informal settings and street performances.
Shakespeare drew on popular composers of his day, for melodies and sometimes entire songs. Thomas Morley was a favorite of his, and gets credited for the tunes matching Will’s choice lyrics to “O, Mistress Mine” (from “Twelfth Night”) and “It Was a Lover and His Lass” (in “As You Like It”).
Though we don’t have original scores for much of his theatrical music, the festival showcases these and other selections from Shakespeare’s era, as well as later classical music catalyzed by his works:
“The Fairy Queen”: The Seattle Baroque Orchestra performs 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell’s noted musical interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring soprano Suzie LeBlanc.
“Daphne Replies: Shakespearean Song Reimagined”: The Early Music Youth Academy offers songs from the plays and times of Shakespeare — “with a modern twist,” using such period instruments as the lute, viola di gamba and harp.
“Sounds and Sweet Airs”: Seattle Pro Musica’s performances showcase choral settings of the Bard’s prose and poetry. Performed at several different venues, the repertoire includes classical and contemporary works, including premiere compositions by Northwest composers Jessica French, Don Skirvin and Giselle Wyers.
“Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet”: Karina Canellakis conducts the Seattle Symphony in a concert featuring a suite derived from the Russian composer’s ballet score for the romantic tragedy.
Back in the early days of jazz, dancers cut a rug to the ragtime ditty “The Shakespearean Rag.” And later, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Benny Goodman collaborated on a jazzy 1930s Broadway revue, “Swingin’ the Dream,” riffing off “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Duke Ellington also incorporated influences from Shakespeare.
“Such Sweet Thunder”: Inspired by performances they viewed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, Ellington and his frequent collaborator Billy Strayhorn created this 12-part suite. Both artists knew and loved Shakespeare’s works, and the composition (debuted by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1957) was influenced by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other plays.
Ellington described it as an “attempt to parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters in miniature — sometimes to the point of caricature.”
Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra will give a rare performance of the suite at locations around the region including Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, Kirkland Performance Center, and Edmonds Center for the Arts in spring.
Shakespeare’s impact on Broadway musical theater is evident in the array of shows that have borrowed his plots, characters and sometimes his dialogue.
High points on Broadway have included “West Side Story” (a New York gang vs. gang version of “Romeo and Juliet”) and “The Lion King” (nicknamed “Hamlet on Safari”). The following musicals are part of the Seattle festivities:
“Kiss Me, Kate”: Cole Porter at the top of his game composed a Broadway show-within-a-show patterned after the battle-of-the-sexes comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.” It won the first Tony Award for best musical (in 1949) and yielded such memorable songs as “Too Darned Hot” and the novelty tune “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” (Sample lyric: “Just declaim a few lines from Othella/ And they’ll think you’re a hell of a fella.”) Alan Paul directs the 5th Avenue Theatre’s new production.
“The Boys from Syracuse”: Lesser known today, but a big hit in its 1938 premiere, this romping take on “The Comedy of Errors” is prized for its Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart score, which boasts such gems as “This Can’t Be Love” and “Sing for Your Supper.” Showtunes Theatre Company will present a concert version of the show at Benaroya Hall staged by Village Theatre artistic director Steve Tomkins.
“Return to the Forbidden Planet”: Take the plot of “The Tempest,” garnish with sci-fi B-movie tropes, add in a jukebox full of oldie pop tunes, and you have a campy musical that prospered in London. The Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way tackles it here, complete with roller-skating robot and songs originated by the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry and the Byrds.
Here is information on music-infused shows mentioned in this story. For a more complete listing of Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare events, go to seattlecelebrates.org
“Beatrice and Benedict,” through March 10; Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org
“Romeo + Juliet,” through April 29; Can Can, 94 Pike St., Seattle; 877-280-7831, thecancan.com
“Sounds and Sweet Airs,” March 11-18; Seattle Pro Musica, locations vary; 800-838-3006, seattlepromusica.org
“Return to the Forbidden Planet,” March 16-31; Centerstage Theatre at the Knutzen Family Theatre, 3200 S.W. Dash Point Road, Federal Way; 253-661-1444 or centerstagetheatre.com
“The Fairy Queen,” March 17-18; Seattle Baroque Orchestra, locations vary; earlymusicseattle.org
“The Boys From Syracuse,” March 23-25; Showtunes Theatre Company, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 206-215-4747, showtunestheatre.org
“Kiss Me, Kate,” April 6-29; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org
“Ellington’s ‘Such Sweet Thunder,’” April 21-23; Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, locations vary; 206-523-6159, srjo.org
“Daphne Replies: Shakespearean Song Reimagined,” May 5; Early Music Youth Academy, Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle; historicalarts.org
“Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet,” May 17-20; Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 866-833-4747 or seattlesymphony.org