BWW Interviews: Deborah Grace Winer on Music and Shakespeare
Think Shakespeare and you get wrapped up in emotions that are often conflicting. Shakespeare is demanding - of close attention, of surprises, of time, and sometimes even of physical comfort (from sitting on the ground in the many performances in the park).
But leave it to the Westport Country Playhouse to offer something old, something new, something borrowed and perhaps something blue in a grand marriage of Shakespeare and popular hit songs when Sing For Your Shakespeare opens on June 3.
"A lot of people don't realize Shakespeare was the mass entertainment guy," she said. "He was into shtick, big, bold stories. He got most of the stuff from other sources - trashy Italian novels or ancient novels. He transformed them with his genius and sense of language, [creating] masterpieces." Illiteracy was high, she noted. People needed to hear and see stories.
Winer, the long-term artistic director of the Lyrics & Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y, spent much of her childhood in Westport and considers the Westport Country Playhouse very special to her. She loves that there is a square on either side of the stage that was part of the theatre's original stage. Joanne Woodward kept them, along with all the charm of the historic place, for posterity after its meticulous renovation. At a WCP event, it clicked for Winer that Lamos, an expert in Shakespeare, could be the right person to master such a show. After a well-received concert, Brush Up Your Shakespeare, last spring at the 92nd Street Y, Winer said she, Lamos and Barker immediately saw that it was a theatrical show to pursue.
The Westport Country Playhouse does not produce a lot of musical revues, and the trio behind Sing For Your Shakespeare was careful to make it more than just a performance of familiar songs. Barker kept a lot of the original concert, but the team "threw out every concept, kept the material, building it anew." In addition to musical numbers from Broadway, film and Tin Pan Alley, they included opera and jazz. Winer noted that Shakespeare "was very improvisational with words....He riffed with words. You can see why jazz musicians are drawn to him." She noted John Dankworth and Cleo Laine's critically acclaimed 1964 recording, Shakespeare and All That Jazz. Duke Ellington's 1957 Such Sweet Thunder was considered a breakthrough in bridging Shakespeare and jazz. Other jazz artists to tap into the words of the Bard include musicians Billy Strayhorn and Arthur Young and vocalist Christiana Drapkin.
The material of Shakespeare is timeless, observed Winer. "It's so interesting how every generation discovers it all over again as their own," she said. "Mark is so brilliant as a director," she said. "Also, his style of working is different from many directors, especially musical directors. He is very creative and improvisational. He will just get these flurries of feverish ideas. It's like being in a playpen....[It's a] wonderful joy ride with Mark. We try stuff. We throw it out. It's like an improv workshop," but he has "complete mastery so it never gets too wild. There's something cohesive by the end of the day."
Winer loves musical revues, calling them a terrific form that's "theatrical and completely musical at the same time. It's very different from going to a musical. It's not as much of a commitment," but the audience is "completely absorbed in a theatrical experience." Winer, Lamos and Barker included comic material as well as music from Frank Loesser's version of Hamlet and Hair. "It's a ride of all different type of songs," she said. "It's really fun because every song has been inspired by Shakespeare in a different way." Sing For Your Shakespeare has some narrative to provide a roadmap, rather than just random songs from West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate and The Boys From Syracuse as well as other shows. There are new songs that are totally unfamiliar to most people, including "Darn that Dream" from a 1939 jazz version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and a song for Ariel in The Tempest. There will not be material from obscure historical plays, but Winer, Lamos and Barker are balancing entertainment with soft education. "We are giving some connective context," she says. "People enjoy things more when it's not just thrown in an abstract way." The show is a 90 minute romp intended for people to come away thinking, "'I know more about Shakespeare than I thought.' It's very, very accessible." The playhouse's tag line "theater worth talking about" could also be "theater worth singing about."
The world premiere of Sing For Your Shakespeare runs from June 3 to June 22 with a formidable cast (pictured above: seated, Stephen DeRosa, Karen Akers; standing, Britney Coleman, Constantine Germanacos, Laurie Wells, Darius de Haas). For tickets, call (888) 927-7529 or (203) 227-4177 or visit
www.westportplayhouse.org. 25 Powers Court, Westport.