Shakespeare and Jazz seems like a pretty odd concept. It even seemed odd to me when I first began working on the music, and it continues to raise eyebrows when first described. How can Shakespeare, the most revered writer in the English language, pair with the raucous, improvisational, earthy nature of jazz from the Crescent City? That’s what Alex Ates and I set out to discover when we decided on a medium that would bring Shakespeare’s words to life in a whole new way.
Turns out the rhythm of jazz fully supports the rhythm of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Each line of a sonnet, for example, fits comfortably within two measures of music, and the sonnet’s built-in rhyme scheme is a match for the song form. As well as the rhythm, the emotional nature of jazz is the perfect platform for Shakespeare’s heightened language. Early jazz tunes tell stories that can relate to just about anyone, in the same way that Shakespeare can be adapted to suite almost any scenario. When combining the two, the simple chord changes of the songs allow the words to rise up and tell their story.
So, then the big challenge – which speeches or sonnets to use? As usually happens with me, the music came first. One thing I’ve learned performing Shakespeare is that you can’t work the language. By attempting to put something on the words, one can make it lifeless and phony. You can only let the words exist in the context of which it is being performed and then the words work you. The same goes for writing music for Shakespeare. If I tried to put music on a piece of the text, it sounded forced, unable to convey the proper feeling of the words. Instead, as the music began forming, I looked through plays and sonnets to find the right words that could exist within that particular song. This way, the words fit into the music, and the song was able to support the feeling of the text. The songs of the Jazz Show are taken from all through Shakespeare’s works, both plays and sonnets. Each tune acted as a base structure, a framework that was still waiting to be colored by the most important part of the process: the cast.
The song order of the show was initially constructed like a CD or a concert, with specific lulls and high points to break up the pace of the performance. I had seen the order of the set in a musical sense but hadn’t quite understood the theatricality that could emerge from the songs. As we worked, incorporating puppetry and dance into the piece, certain characters started forming, and specific relationships between these characters throughout the entire cast emerged. We realized that with these characters and the words that they sing, a completely new story was being told with a classic Shakespearean plot running through the show. Suddenly the show had new meaning, and by simply playing the music, singing the songs, and interacting with each other as a company and with the audience, the show came to life. By combining the words with the music, a new Shakespearean story was naturally formed, almost as if it had created itself.
– Patrick Greeley is the Musical Director for The Shakespearean Jazz Show. The show runs this Thursday & Friday, July 18 & 19 at the Paramount Center Mainstage.