Sunday, December 03, 2006

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

It's been two months since we wrapped up the 2006 season with Romeo and Juliet and we're still hearing comments from audience members who loved the synergy at work among all the elements of the show: the talented cast, unafraid to communicate the play's humor as well as its passion; the magic of the Swan space, open to the stars at which Romeo screams defiance; the contributions of our artistic team, from Bob Hall's direction, Kat Cover's costumes, and Beth Govaerts's dance choreography to Annie Aspegren's music, John Marinovich's fight choreography, and Megan Merz's hair and makeup design. Our education director gave a guest lecture at Lincoln's Hamilton College this past week and was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic praise of Flatwater offered by the instructor, Sarah Fairchild, and by several students -- some of whom were encouraged to take a Shakespeare course by their enjoyment of our shows.

While it's sad (if also sweet, according to Juliet) to say good bye to this particular production, Romeo and Juliet are almost always with us, especially in music. As the program note for Flatwater's Romeo and Juliet observed, Shakespeare’s play has been inspirational to composers for centuries. There has been an explosion of musical reimaginings of the play and its leading characters over the last few decades. Starting with West Side Story in 1957, music helped audiences see Romeo and Juliet as a play that could speak for young people, as well as about them. In the very next year, Peggy Lee added new lyrics to the R and B hit "Fever" that focus on the young lovers: "Romeo loved Juliet / Juliet she felt the same / When he put his arms around her / He said Julie, baby, you’re my flame / Thou givest fever."

For much of his career, Bruce Springsteen has demonstrated a fascination with the characters, as in his "Incident on 57th Street," from 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle. The song tells the story of the ambivalent love shared by "Spanish Johnny" and "Puerto Rican Jane": Johnny is described as being "like a cool Romeo," uncertain as to whether to go beyond simply making "moves"; Jane as being "like a late Juliet," uncertain as to whether to believe any of Johnny’s gestures toward devotion. Mark Knopfler wrote and performed with Dire Straits "Romeo and Juliet," which appears on Making Movies, released in 1980. Knopfler’s song deftly combines materials from the original play, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version, West Side Story, and youth-oriented pop. For example, when Knopfler’s "lovestruck Romeo sings a streetsuss serenade," he interrupts Juliet’s own rendition of the Angels’ 1963 hit "My Boyfriend’s Back" – and apparently Romeo is no longer the boyfriend.

Other bracing appropriations of the story have been performed by rap artist Sylk-E. Fyne (her own "Romeo and Juliet" on the 1998 album Raw Sylk) and Shirley Manson, vocalist for Garbage, in her rewrite of the band’s "#1 Crush," among other tracks commissioned for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film of William Shakespeare’s "Romeo+Juliet". All of these versions, whether playful or poignant, draw strength from the power of Shakespeare’s creation: a play about lovers who realize that family, fate, and time itself are set against them; a play about lovers who nevertheless choose to defy each and every obstacle for each other’s sake.

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