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What's The Best Music For Shakespeare's 400-Year-Old 'Twelfth Night'? Jazz, Of Course

Julie Denesha
Composer Greg Mackender (left) and professional stride pianist Bram Wijnands play 1920s-style jazz for 'Twelfth Night.'

Theater directors who take on Shakespeare, as Sidonie Garrett does every summer, have an interesting first task ahead of them: Deciding where and when to set their plays.

At the same time, avid Shakespeare-goers know they can encounter the unexpected. It might be a London West End Much Ado About Nothing set in 1980s Spanish resort; Trevor Nunn’s spooky, minimalist 1976 Macbeth; or film-maker Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Julietin a mafia-infested Verona Beach.

Kansas City composer Greg Mackender knows the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is no different. He set the Taming of the Shrew to surf music; composed a New Age-y score for As You Like It; and wrote a tango to open King Lear.

This year, for the festival’s 24th season, artistic director Garrett says she wanted Twelfth Night’s land of Illyria to have a little bit of romance, glitz and glamor. Think: jet-setting and vaguely European.

“I love the romantic and lyrical quality of this play," Garrett says. "The comedy of it is so bold and brash. …  I wanted a time period that would allow us to really explore what it means to be free, and sort of wild.”

So for Garrett, the roaring 1920s was the perfect period setting. And for composer Mackender, that meant jazz.

Not just any jazz

“I sort of took some creative liberty here,” says Mackender. “There was a trend then of a fascination with American music and jazz, and so I sort of borrowed freely …  In my early models I was thinking Cole Porter, George Gershwin.”

Mackender wrote the music last February. Soon after, entering a studio where he teaches at UMKC, Mackender heard longtime Kansas City musician Bram Wijnands playing stride piano, and says it hit him like a “flash of lightning”: This one-man-band piano style could bring the glitz and whimsy of the 1920s to the Twelfth Night soundscape.

Wijnands says when he heard about the opportunity to work with this festival, and in this musical period specifically, he was excited.

“If I’m asked to play something in the context of the ‘20s, I’m all over it,” he says with a huge, even Shakespearean, laugh. “I love that stuff. Especially in those days, a lot of music was based on stride piano. So I think from a stylistic point of view it falls right into place anyway.”

Wijnands says not only is the music appropriate to the setting for this production, the quirkiness and liveliness of the music Mackender composed from the styles of the period are particularly suited to the play’s humor.

"I think it only embellishes what Shakespeare was talking about," he says. "I think it’s a perfect fit.”

But that's not all, folks

Twelfth Night, says Garrett, might be Shakespeare’s most musical play. Mackender has not only composed music to go with a play written more than 400 years ago, he’s written music for the Elizabethan lyrics Shakespeare wrote into the play.

“So Greg has to take those lyrics, written more than 400 years ago, and think about: How would this come out of someone’s mouth – with musicians such as Cole Porter and other musicians of the time as his inspiration.”

Mackender says in his 29 productions with the festival, this is only the second time his music for the production has been live. That allows Mackender and Wijnands to interact with actors in real time throughout the performance.

“And because it’s live,” he says, “if we want to try something new we can just do it right on the spot, and know right away if it’s working or not, and move on from there.”

So what would Shakespeare make of this romping romantic staging of his comedy? Garrett doesn’t hesitate with her answer.

“I think he would really go mad for it,” she says. “I mean his humor in many instances is word play for his time as it would would be for ‘Saturday Night Live’ of our time. … So he would’ve been all over this.”

Twelfth Night, or, What You Will, presented by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, 8 p.m., June 14-July 3 at Southmoreland Park (signed performances for the hard of hearing will be Wednesday, June 22 and Sunday, June 26). Festival admission is donation only.  

Janet Saidi is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @theradiogirl.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.

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