on Broadway 2
By FRANK BEHRENS
“Twelfth Night” is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular, delightful
and charming of romantic comedies. Using the ancient devices of a woman
dressed as man who becomes attractive to both another woman and a man
and twins who think the other dead, the plot plunges us into the busy
household of the Lady Olivia, who has forsworn marriage and the lugubrious
household of the Duke Orsino who will not desist in proposing to her.
As a subplot, we have the revenge of Olivia’s uncle
Sir Toby Belch, his friend and source of income Sir Andrew Aguecheek,
the servant Maria, and the household fool Feste, along with an extra
servant or two, on the puritanical Malvolio who thinks that because
he is virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale.
Well, is this not all the stuff of musical comedy? In
fact, there are just enough songs Shakespeare wrote into the script
that nearly qualify “Twelfth Night” as a musical comedy. So there
is little wonder that three musicals have used this play as the basis
of their plots. Of them, let us consider the two that lasted more than
just a few performances and found their way onto recordings.
“Your Own Thing” opened on January 13, 1968 and enjoyed
933 performances. The score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar is best
described as light-rock and the lyrics (by the same team) had nothing
to offend the older generation, who were trying to cope with the “Do
your own thing” philosophy of their children and grand-children. (Those
who had danced the Charleston and Black Bottom to the dismay of THEIR
parents might have been more tolerant, but I doubt it.)
Some of the dialogue is from Shakespeare, as are the
lyrics to “Come away death” and “She never told her love.” Sebastian
and Viola are a rock duo, separated by a sea wreck. Ilyria is New York.
Orson manages a rock group. Olivia owns a discotheque. Viola disguised
as Charlie gets a spot in Orson’s band. Sebastian, out of the hospital,
runs into Orson, who mistakes him for Charlie. And so on. As you can
see, it uses “Twelfth Night” as a starting point and then rocks along
in its own direction.
Some credibility is given to these errors by the fact
that young men’s hair was as long if not longer than that of most women—as
they were in Shakespeare’s time but not in late 19th-century settings
that many productions have been given in the past decades.
The music is goofy and pleasant, as you can hear on
the RCA Victor CD that is still available.
“Play On” did not open on Broadway but became a cult
favorite very quickly. I saw it on Public Television and was lucky enough
to tape it, because the video is simply not for sale as far as I know.
Here the Harlem of the 1940s is in the background and the only music
heard is that of Duke Ellington.
So when young Vy comes to New York from Mississippi
to become a songwriter, she is told by the chorus to “Take the A-Train”
up to Harlem. But songwriting is a male profession, so her Uncle Jester
suggests she disguise herself as a man and go to the Duke for a kick-start.
The Duke is in a depression from his breakup with Lady Liv, who sings
at the Cotton Club. Add to this, Rev, Liv’s secretary, who is in love
with her and lets himself gets tricked into wearing an absurd yellow
suit and singing “I’m beginning to see the light”—and you have
something very, very close to what Shakespeare had in mind.
By the way, “Love and Let Love” is the name of the third
musical based on “Twelfth Night” and I would love to hear from anyone
who has seen it or has any information about it.
So far we have “Kiss Me Kate” which uses “The Taming
of the Shrew” for both the framing device and the musical within the
musical, “The Boys from Syracuse” that keeps in “The Comedy of Errors”
in a sort of Aegean setting and “Oh, Brother!” that transposes it both
in time and place, “Your Own Thing” that updates but does not faithfully
follow the “Twelfth Night” sequence of events and “Play On” that more
or less does.
This leaves us with two more successful treatments that
do indeed stick to the plots of their originals but in different ways.
Can you guess what they are?