References to Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” may turn up in songs by the likes of Regina Spektor, Lupe Fiasco and even Meatloaf, but the controversial play is not typically thought of as one of the Bard’s “musical” works. There is no song-and-dance masque, as in “The Tempest,” or lullabies, as in “Midsummer” and “Othello.” But the city of Venice has been inspiring composers for centuries, as have the characters Shylock, Portia and Antonio.
The Folger Consort will celebrate the music of those muses on Friday at Strathmore, with help from a soprano and quartet of actors led by Sir Derek Jacobi, who will perform scenes from the play between musical selections. This is the third collaboration between the Folger Consort and Jacobi and his partner, the actor/director/producer Richard Clifford. The other performances featured music from Purcell’s “Fairie-Queen” with text from “Midsummer” and selections from a 1674 opera setting of “The Tempest” with Shakespearean dialogue.
But this collaboration is different. Clifford first selected scenes that he felt could stand alone — about 20 percent of the text — and then worked with the Folger Consort’s artistic directors, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, to select the music. They are hopeful that the evening of late Renaissance and early baroque music will bring theater fans to a concert hall.
“All audiences are important,” Clifford said. “Sometimes people who are interested in early music would not necessary go to see a play, and people who would go to see a play would not necessarily go to hear this music that was contemporary to the time of Shakespeare. This melds the two together.”
Committing to music from Shakespeare’s time meant that fewer pieces would be directly related to the play. In the 1600s, few Italian composers would have known who Shakespeare was. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Shakespeare was widely translated into Italian (at which point Verdi and his librettist pals became obsessed with him). Thus, including music by Italian greats Gabrieli and Monteverdi is authentic to the play’s setting rather than to its text. The consort, however, also will perform music by Jerome Bassano, an Italian immigrant who was a court musician to Queen Elizabeth I, and Richard Nicholson’s “A Jew’s Dance,” which may be a reference to Shylock, the conniving merchant depicted by Shakespeare in a not-so-flattering way.
Jacobi will play Shylock; Clifford, Antonio. Joining them onstage will be actresses Shirine Babb and Samantha Bond, also known for her role as Lady Rosamund on “Downton Abbey.” Although all four have impressive credits in film, theater and television, Clifford said they are still intimidated by the beauty and expanse of Strathmore.
“It’s breathtaking and very exciting,” he said. “You’re aware of that enormous audience, in an 1,800-seat hall, extending upward in that beautiful arc-like shape. It’s wonderful. Awe-inspiring, but wonderful.”
Another theatrical celebrity was at a much more modest Washington-area venue last week: Composer Stephen Schwartz made a surprise appearance Friday night at Catholic University for the opening of “Unlimited,” a new revue of his music. The show was performed in Catholic’s Ward Recital Hall, a drafty building that resembles a small-town Gothic church. But the six student singers and mix of professional and student musicians gave performances worthy of a much better venue and sound system. (Performances continue through Saturday.)
“Unlimited: The Music and Lyrics of Stephen Schwartz” is the brainchild of Arlington-based No Rules Theatre Company. Creators Matt Coward, Joshua Morgan and Zak Sandler hope to eventually license the work to high schools, colleges and conservatories, and it appears they are close to receiving the Broadway composer’s blessing. This particular crop of Catholic students already had Schwartz’s approval, but his visit Friday was a surprise. It wasn’t until the cast came back onstage after the show that they were told that the short man in the black suit in the fifth row was Schwartz.
“I thought you guys did great,” Schwartz said to the beaming students. “I really got to know each one of you very distinctly, which is a wonderful thing, musically.” One by one, Hasani Allen, Erica Clare, Nicki Elledge, Brian McNally, Harrison Smith and Allison Verhofstadt came forward to shake hands with the man who wrote the music for such musicals as “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked,” and the Disney classics “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“I just wanted to thank you for writing these songs,” Elledge said. “Your lyrics touch me every time, and it’s an honor to be doing this.”
Elledge’s numbers in the show included “Meadowlark” and “Corner of the Sky,” both anthems about finding yourself — as young, idealistic performers often aim for at about age 22. That’s why those songs, and others, are in “Unlimited.”
“I thought a revue of my songs — that was meant to be performed by and for kids — was a really nice idea,” Schwartz said after the performance. “And I like that they chose songs, and semi-situations, that spoke to this age. To the extent that it was required at all, I encouraged it and gave it my blessing.”
Arena Stage has chosen six local playwrights for the next cycle of its Playwrights’ Arena fellowship program: Steven A. Butler Jr., Patricia Davis, Joshua Ford, Mary Stone Hanley, Liz Maestri and David Mitchell Robinson. The unpaid fellowships will culminate in May 2016 with a reading of their works.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.