Friday, September 7, 2018

Shakespeare’s Greatest Musicals: ‘Bid me discourse’

Funny the things that cross your mind, at cocktail time on a Thursday, while watching the sun go over the pink horizon …

Shakespeare. Yes, he. Willie. With whom I have never been able wholly to get to grips. Perhaps seven years of age was too soon to try to get into the plays. I did try. And the results were half-fig, half-raisin. I mean, no one cannot love A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I played Prince John in half of Henry IV as a teenager. But I failed English II, aged 18, for pointing out to my tutor, in a typical Kurt essay, what I perceived as the faults in As You Like It. And A Winter’s Tale at the RSC would have sent me to sleep, except that I was there ‘officially’. However, my brother finds it one of the best Shakespeare plays. So, maybe it’s me. Anyhow, Willie is enshrined as a – even THE -- Theatrical Monument, and who am I to think, quietly, that he nodded much more often than is admitted.

When you are a Literary Monument, these days, and your copyright is flown, you can suffer from the most awful fate known to creative man. Your works get ‘musicalised’. Some authors escape this treatment. Balzac (give or take The Music Man) has somehow got away clean. His (my opinion, again) English and not-nearly-as-good equivalent, Mr Dickens, has not: but only at the price of some kiddie routines. And, oh Lord! Does anyone else remember ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do now than I have ever done’ Dum dum dum. At London’s Palace Theatre. Victor Hugo drew lucky with Les Misérables at the same theatre, but has been plunged into more ghastly hunchbacked musicals than  I could count …

Which brings us to Willie. In my Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre I listed a large bundle of the failed attempts to musicalise (as opposed to operaticise) the works of Willie. What a dispiriting list it is! I don’t mean things like West Side Story which only use one idea and plot element from one play. I mean a genuine attempt to make a musical or light opera out of a straight, real, Willie-play. Like they did to make the unjustly neglected Lock up Your Daughters from Fielding’s Rape upon Rape.In period, in style – not in white face with balloons and motorbikes – well, I’m thinking! I’ve just re-read my own article …

But, oh damn. In that article, I missed the best and most effective musical-theatre Shakespeare works ever! Why? Because I didn’t look back far enough in time … 

In 1819, 1820 and 1821, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, put on their usual diet of ‘opera’ and plays. Shakespeare, as ever, much featured. But this season, they decided to add a full score of music, mainly for the benefit of the theatre’s vocal stars Maria Tree and Kitty Stephens, to each of the plays. Which meant, of course, a wee slimming of the bulging text …  House music-director, Henry Bishop, was put to the job of composing and arranging the music and, typically, he composed more than he arranged. Rightly so! The results were splendid.

The Comedy of Errors was the first to get the treatment (11 December 1819). I don’t have the text, but the critics basically said that they thought that the more of the play that was cut out, the better. ‘We cannot conceive that Shakespeare wrote this play with any satisfaction …’. But it went down well. Bishop’s settings of Shakespeare’s poetry, as sung by the duo of divas, caught the town. I have eleven titles, doubtless there were more, that were slipped into the text, but they include ‘Take, o take those lips away’ (from Measure for Measure), ‘As it fell upon a day’, ‘It was a Lover and his Lass’ (from As You Like It), ‘Come live with me and be my love’, ‘Lo, here the gentle lark’. 

The favourite numbers headed, in their newest shape, for a thousand cottage pianos and endless concerts. Details to be found in Christopher’s Wilson’s new book, Shakespeare and Music.

The recipe was obviously worth following up, and on 20 November 1820 Covent Garden opened their new production of Twelfth Night with a grand cast (Viola: Maria Tree, Olivia: Miss Greene quickly replaced by Emma Love, Malvolio: William Farren) and one helluva score. Miss Tree’s best solo, ‘Bid me discourse’, was a singular triumph, and became a soprano standard for a century. 

Twelfth Night was followed up by The Two Gentlemen of Verona, with Miss Tree as Julia. And with two more major hit songs: ‘Should he upbraid’ and a version of sonnet 26 ‘When in disgrace with fortune’, as well as ‘Full many a glorious morning’ and ‘O how much more’..

There’s actually a very stilted and antiquated version of ‘Upbraid’ on youtube, sung by Frieda Hempel. A new one would be an improvement. Or maybe Melba’s ‘Discourse’?

Covent Garden’s productions were vastly successful, and they launched their ‘hit show tunes’ all round the world. Songs that would survive a century as concert items and theatrical interpolations, until tastes and modes in vocal music changed, and the bravuras of Bishop, Arne and co gave way to more modish bravuras, from ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ to ‘Glitter and be gay’.

It will be exactly two centuries very soon, since these huge hit versions of Shakespeare’s plays, with music by an internationally celebrated English composer, were first produced. I’d love to see the UK National Theatre or the RSC restage them, to mark the event … or maybe even Covent Garden. Back where they were born 200 years ago … 

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