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Shakespeare was really Sondheim

August 21, 2011

This is just a short post to draw attention to an article found on the Guardian website Shakespeare’s last masterpiece was really a musical.  For some baffling reason, this is being treated as a new discovery, and Robert Johnson is identified as a newly-discovered significant composer.

Music in Shakespeare is a subject near and dear to the hearts of musicians possessing the remotest interest in the Tudor/Stuart era.  As anyone who has bothered to research the surviving bits of music from masques and plays of the time knows, music played an enormously important role in entertainment of all sorts.

Unfortunately, modern productions of Shakespeare plays tend to ignore both the hard evidence and  more subtle surviving clues, and musical directors think of a new production as an opportunity to ‘improve’ upon the authentic music.  In some cases, this phenomenon has given rise to some interesting newly minted classics, such as Purcell’s music for the Fairy Queen.  But more often than not, the new music clothes both the texts and the dramatic action in ill-fitting garb – I am thinking of particular filmed productions in recent memory such as those directed by Kenneth Branagh. I mean, Puhleeze.

The need to interpret Shakespeare as a ‘musical’, viewed retrospectively through Sondheim’s tinted contact lenses will only result in an astigmatic production – at least musically speaking.

There are plenty of ways a serious music director involved in a modern production of Shakespeare can find his or her way to the sources of authentic music from the period.  We are compelled to plug our own edition aimed at the lute worthy, Shakespeare’s Lute Book.  But, even if a music director ‘updates’ the original music, a working understanding of the original conventions goes a long way towards effective scoring.

Please, let’s not recast the plays of Shakespeare in the mold of modern musicals.

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