Q&A: Romeo and Juliet rendition questions

These are questions I received about my musical “Romeo and Juliet”. My musical version of RJ premiered in January 2015 at the Historic Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, WA. Directed by Joe Bowen and presented by META Performing Arts. The challenge set for this production was to score the entire musical using only Shakespeare’s original text. No watering down the words. No slang and updated lyrics. And no hipster modern setting. We set the set and costumes to the original Shakespeare time period of the late 16th century. It was a very challenging project and extremely fulfilling. Here’s a link to check out original musicals by Conrad Askland.

How have you adapted the themes of the play to adapt and suit the modern day audience and politics?

Yes and no. In my rendition,  I use Shakespeare’s original words. For the premiere run I requested period costumes and sets (1590’s). Of course, a future company could choose to change that approach, but to me those considerations are superficial. To my personal taste, those changes detract instead of adding to the production. Musically, I scored the show in a combination of North American Broadway style and light opera. So it was the music itself that was tailored to a musical theatre crowd while the text and presentation was true to the period in which it was written.

What aspects of it have you found challenging?

You can put any notes to Shakespeare’s words, but to have those melodies feel natural and not detract from the text was extremely challenging. I have seen many versions where composers approach RJ with a 20th century musical approach and use 12 tone scales and atonal music. To me, this is purely an academic exercise because they were under no pressure to sell tickets; they are underwritten by the universities they work at. When you have to sell tickets, but still honor Shakespeare’s original work – that was the core of the challenge. It was a very detailed process to make the words sing and feel natural. The work involved a lot of  re-writing. Each piece I wrote was usually re-written at least 5 times and in whole I wrote three times as much music as was eventually retained. In other words, I actually scored the entire work three times and threw two of them out.

What inspired you to change the play into a musical?

I was given the challenge by a director that I have worked with before. Originally he wanted me to “write a new Romeo and Juliet musical.” On researching the history of different approaches, I realized that no one had ever scored a successful version that used only Shakespeare’s original English text. There is of course West Side Story which is it’s own story and lyrics, there is Gounod’s opera but that is not in English, there is a Romeo and Juliet musical in French that has been successful but again it doesn’t use the original English text. At the time I started researching the project in November 2013, the Broadway Romeo and Juliet musical had horrible reviews. The main complaint in that production was that it watered down the story to much to try and placate and uneducated audience. So I had the challenge to write it, I found that it had never been done successfully in the original English and on top of that the Broadway show diluted the story with the assumption that an audience would not be educated enough to understand the original Shakespeare. Those were the three elements that set me on the course to score completely to Shakespeare’s original words.

Are there any parts of the script that you’ve had to change/adapt or take out to suit the modern day audience and what parts have you been able to keep the same?

I only changed three words in the entire original script. One was the reference to the “Capulet monument”. I didn’t feel a modern audience would understand the monument reference so I changed it to “Capulet tomb”. Also, the word “shrive” I thought a modern audience would not understand, so I changed that to “confession”.

For redactions of text, my over riding rule was to cut anything that a modern audience would not understand if seeing the show cold; in other words, if an audience member could not understand something without specifically studying this particular play, it was cut. An example of this would be in the Nurse’s long monologue in Act One. She makes reference to earthquakes that the audience in the late 1590’s understood, but there’s no way a modern audience would understand the reference. I also removed some references to classical references that are now fairly obscure to the general public. This process of editing was extremely slow and detailed.

There were a few instances where I re-arranged sentences. An example of this would be Juliet’s Act Two separation from the Nurse in “Go Counsellor” which I scored as a very angry anthem that Juliet sings with a belt voice. I also did add a flashback scene right before that to make clear to the audience the Juliet is making the intentional choice to separate from the counsel of the Nurse. This is one of the few areas that I thought was not clear in the original, and a very important plot point to me.

As to all the parts that are different and the same, the process was very detailed throughout the entire script. Many artistic choices and I also received advice from some Shakespeare scholars as they read through the script to find areas that I really needed to bring back in. It was important with me in this production that my script version be satisfying to traditional Shakespeare fans.

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