Shakespeare’s Songs Go Modern on Playwright’s 450th Birthday in Bryant Park
“This island is full of noises, strange sounds and sweet melodies that make you feel good and don’t hurt anyone. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices.”
Caliban is here describing the tiny island that is the setting of The Tempest, but he could very well be talking about Manhattan. On April 23, troupe members of The Drilling Company performed songs by William Shakespeare in Bryant Park to celebrate the playwright’s 450th birthday. Their performances were accompanied by guitars, ukeleles, and the sound of nearby traffic.
It’s easy to forget that music was originally integrated in select passages of Shakespeare’s plays—stanzas with a [SONG] heading—because they are far more widely read than seen.
“Shakespeare wrote the songs to be played with music. There are songs in the play. They say ‘song’ so when they performed in the plays four centuries ago, they performed them with music,” said Hamilton Clancy, the director at The Drilling Company.
Mary Linehan, an assistant director, sang Cloten’s Song (“arise: Arise, arise!”) from Cymbline. The song was set to classical music which she composed herself.
“[Classical music] complements the piece because a lot of classical pieces center around nature and the seasons,” she said.
Other performers paired Shakespeare with something more unorthodox. Alessandro Colla sang one of Dumaine’s stanzas from Love’s Labour’s Lost as he plucked the tunes of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” on his ukelele.
Colla first performed in the title role in Hamlet more than three years ago. He will take up the role again in May in a Drilling Company production.
When asked how the play has changed for him with time, he replied: “All of the choices and discoveries that I made the first time, they seem obvious or they don’t seem to fit anymore because I’m different. The longer you live, the greater your filter for Shakespeare, things becomes apparent that you never caught the first time around. You start to realize all of the layers and why his plays are still done so long after his death.”
The celebration had a long canvas laid out for the passerby to write their favorite line from Shakespeare. Those who couldn’t remember a line by heart could peruse through copies of the plays on the canvas or draw a line out of a paper bag. Clancy plans the canvas to be displayed as a mural somewhere in New York City.
Clancy strove to have the onlookers take part in the celebration. He offered a free T-shirt to anyone who would come onstage to read a passage from Shakespeare. More than half a dozen took up the offer and gave readings of monologues from plays such as Henry V and Macbeth. The same spirit of inclusiveness motivated Clancy choice of Bryant Park as the site of Wednesday’s event.
“The idea is that a park is for everybody, and Bryant Park is certainly a park for everybody. And that’s exactly what Shakespeare was for. Shakespeare is for everybody,” he said.
Jonathan Zhou is a special correspondent in New York.