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'The Tempest: The Musical'?

Shakespearean actors

The U.K. Observer has reported that Jonathon Holmes, artistic director of the Jericho House, claims that Shakespeare should have maybe shared credit with musician Robert Johnson for The Tempest, having found evidence that the Bard's last work was actually meant to be a musical.

Robert Johnson (no, not the 1930s blues singer, although that would make for an interesting musical) was a composer, as well as the highest regarded lute virtuoso of his time, and is already said to have written two songs in the play. But Holmes, who spent two years' researching The Tempest before directing his own new production, believes that Johnson may have composed a movie score-like soundtrack to the entire play.

"The norm in the play, I now believe, was continuous sound," Holmes said, "though there is nothing else like this in Jacobean drama." Probably because musicals, as we know them, didn't exist yet.

"Although the idea of a score is something we are used to, it was revolutionary at the time," Holmes added. "It meant that the characters didn't appear to hear the music. It shaped the narrative and it changed the number of lines a character needed. In terms of dramatic importance, it is as if we've been missing a character all this time."

Without access to the entirety of Holmes' evidence, I am not convinced that music was much more than a "theme" of this play, and perhaps that opens the director to do as he or she sees fit for each production.

After all, the play has often been turned into operas, ballets, and symphonies, but so have many other Shakespeare plays. The Tempest is considered his most lyrical work, but it also differs from Shakespeare's other plays significantly, largely because of the amount of supernatural elements that were included in the plot itself -- magic, spirits, trances, etc. -- so I feel as if you could also argue that the verse seems more lyrical simply because the story is more fantastic.

I guess what I'm really skeptical of is the prominence of Johnson's part in the development of the play. I've seen Cheek by Jowl's amazing production of The Tempest at the Barbican (also the venue for Holmes' upcoming Jericho House production), and since the dialogue was entirely in Russian, the musical aspects of the play became extremely important. However, just as prominent was the theme of water, and by the end of the show the stage -- and many characters -- had been drenched. In that case, the play held up just fine on its own, with music simply being a present theme. 

Plus, if Holmes' reasearch eventually results in productions that match the level of ridiculousness of The Republic Theater Company's musical based on The Tempest, I'll pass and take my Shakespearean verse just the way it is -- spoken words.

-- Ali Mierzejewski

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