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Friday, May 27, 2011

Shakespeare the Musical

I'm used to somehow spending my summer with Shakespeare. About this time I'm rewrapping my brain around the language and naturally thinking about the wherefores and whatfores that go into producing the Bard professionally. But this year, I will be content with blogging briefly about it.

With Shakespeare we all start in the same place -- the text. Before you pass this off as another "dedicate-yourself-to-the-text" missive I want to say that the only reason you do so is in order to dismiss it. The best performers are so immersed in the language that even when they go up on their lines they're able to improv in iambs. You have to intellectualize this incredible poetry simply to understand and live in the text. We have to relearn how to hold the words in our mouths and live in these worlds.

So you've checked your lexicon for obscurities, rocked out your scansion, and done your breath work already? Great. Now what are you feeling? Why are you saying it? I've never been more bored watching Shakespeare than when emotion was mechanical and language was completely misunderstood. They might as well be saying:

daDUM, daDUM, *sad* daDUM, daDUM, daDUM
*angry* daDUM, daDUM....

If you can't tell your coach or best friend the arch of your soliloquy, it isn't ready for the stage. What does your character realize by the end?

Now get into your body! Don't remember the words -- remember the feelings! What does your body do when it's sad, incensed, delighted?

It's the soliloquy that kills or thrills the audience. Maybe it's because I'm currently working on a musical, but I'm ready to argue that a Shakespeare monologue/soliloquy isn't much different than breaking out into song. There comes a point in musicals where words are useless, and the only effective way to communicate this heightened feeling is to sing it!

Think about Hamlet's decision not to kill his uncle in the chapel (III.iii).

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Now let's think about Sweeney Todd's "My Friends." (For those of you unsure of the melody here's a bit of YouTube for you to listen along. I've removed Mrs. Lovett's lines so follow closely to Todd's lines.)
These are my friends.
See how they glisten.
See this one shine...
How he smiles in the light.
My friend.
My faithful friend...
Speak to me friend.
I'll listen.
I know, I know you've been locked
out of sight
all these years, like me
My friend...
well I've come home to find you waiting.
Home, and we're together!
And we'll do wonders.
Won't we?
You there, my friend?
Come let me hold you.
with a sigh, you grow warm in my hand.
You're warm in my hand.
My friend!
My clever friend...
Rest now, my friends.
Soon, I'll unfold you.
Soon you'll know splendors
You never have dreamed
all your days
my lucky friends
'Til now your shine
was merely silver.
Friends, you shall drip rubies,
you'll soon drip precious rubies...
At last! My arm is complete again!

Both characters are thinking revenge, both have sudden changes. Both are ripe with ideas, consequences. Both are secret internal conversations. Both build! Both are the truth!

If you know Sweeney Todd I dare you to re-read Hamlet's soliloquy and NOT try singing it.

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