When she saw the stage version of The Lion King, Dame Judi Dench vowed, half-jokingly, that she would never appear in a musical again unless an elephant came up the aisle. Well, as she opens as a singing Mistress Quickly in the Royal Shakespeare Company's new musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, composed by Paul Englishby, with lyrics by Ranjit Bolt, that condition will be kept, just about.
After the preliminary Merry England skirmishes on the Stratford stage, Falstaff will arrive to stir up the Windsor soup in the gargantuan shape of Simon Callow fitted out in Bryn Terfel's Falstaff fat suit, borrowed from the Royal Opera's latest revival of Verdi's opera. He will, indeed, measure "two yards about".
As part of the RSC's ongoing Complete Works festival, The Merry Wives is seen by director Gregory Doran as an ideal candidate for a musical makeover. "There is something about the lightness of the play," he says, "that lends itself to this treatment; I think of it as the I Love Lucy of the Shakespeare canon."
Perhaps the composers of several operatic versions in French and German before Salieri, Mozart's nemesis, had a go in 1799 did not exactly share those sentiments, but you can see what Doran means.Supposedly commanded by Queen Elizabeth who wanted to see "the fat knight in love", the play has a simple plot (showing up the braggart Falstaff, basically) and there are countless obvious cues for song.
So, Englishby and Bolt have devised a jealous-rage number for Ford (played by Alistair McGowan), as well as a later request for forgiveness; the merry wives (Alexandra Gilbreath and Haydn Gwynne) will be seen comparing the same lecherous letter from Falstaff; and the fairy finale around Herne's Oak will develop the lyricism already provided by Shakespeare. In addition, Doran and his team have gone back to the Henry IV and Henry V plays to beef up songs for both Dench and Callow.
Bolt is currently working on a new musical version of Dickens's Hard Times, and has teamed up in the past with Peter Hall and the RSC's senior composer, Guy Woolfenden, on a West End Lysistrata. For Merry Wives - the Musical he is "mixing it up metrically" and hoping to do justice to Englishby's "gorgeous music". Englishby wrote the music for Doran's RSC revival of All's Well That Ends Well, in which Dench played the Countess, and he slipped a sort of Elizabethan "Stomp" number into The Tamer Tamed (the John Fletcher sequel to The Taming of the Shrew), where the women go on strike, banging pots and pans; a bit of that spirit creeps into Merry Wives - the Musical, apparently.
Music invades Shakespeare all the time. His plays are imbued with soft musical sighs, coarse roundelays and elemental melodic breezes. But the advent of rock music loosened inhibitions about getting down with the Bard. In the 1970s, there were sustained assaults on plays such as The Merchant of Venice, re-titled Fire Angel, which moved the Venetian rialto into Little Italy in a crude disco blare; Two Gentlemen of Verona, given a new groove by Galt MacDermot and playwright John Guare in their treatment of that play's fashion-conscious philandering, and a surprise Broadway hit; and Hamlet, re-worked as Rockabye Hamlet starring Meat Loaf, an unsurprising flop. Jack Good's rock Othello, Catch my Soul, on the other hand, was excellent.
There have always been musical versions of Shakespeare that use the plays as a springboard to somewhere else. Verdi's Shakespearean tragic operas are great artistic achievements, but they do not improve on Othello or Macbeth. Benjamin Britten's exquisite operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, on the other hand, is an exceptional enhancement of that great comedy. It is a fair bet thatSwingin' the Dream (1939) and a 1964 rock version, Babes in the Wood, which has disappeared off the radar, however, were not.
No, the lodestar Shakespeare musicals are those that convey the spirit of the work while moving it into a new artistic dimension. They are, in rising degrees of success, Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse (1938, from The Comedy of Errors); Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate (1948, based on The Taming of the Shrew); and West Side Story (1957).
In RSC folklore, Trevor Nunn's 1976 production of The Comedy of Errors, in which Dench played Adriana, was the show that started Nunn, and the company, on a "musicals" quest. Dench later directed a fine revival of The Boys from Syracuse in the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, in London, while Nunn went on to spearhead the RSC's 1980s musical epics of Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables.
Throughout that decade, and beyond, there was a fantastic amount of good Shakespearean music written by the likes of Stephen Oliver, the old maestro Woolfenden, the adventurous Ilona Sekacz and the versatile musical director John Woolf. Englishby is bidding to join their company and that of many composers drawn to The Merry Wives and Falstaff. The German composer Otto Nicolai's 1849 version is only remembered for its ebullient overture, whereas Verdi's late 1893 masterpiece seems to redefine the light operatic genre every time you hear it.
The Vaughan Williams comic opera was not performed professionally until 1946 and then again in 1958. The composer had been musical director at Stratford for Frank Benson's Shakespeare seasons in 1912 and 1913, and had written some incidental music for The Merry Wives, a play he fell in love with. His opera is a score full of folk tunes and lush orchestral writing - the folk song revival was in full swing in Stratford in that pre-war era, and Vaughan Williams was heavily involved in it.
Because of that Stratford connection alone, the RSC's new Merry Wives will be seen as some kind of response to Vaughan Williams, and Doran is the first to point this out. "But we are aiming to be much more eclectic," he says. The episode in which Falstaff is deposited in the Thames with the dirty linen, is "sung-through" in a Verdian style. "We are only maintaining a very old tradition in all of this," Doran explains. "Mrs Vestris was always slipping in songs to this play, and Samuel Phelps got Arthur Sullivan to write a song for Anne Page to lyrics by Swinburne."
But they never had an elephant coming up the aisle...
'Merry Wives The Musical', Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (08706 091 110; www.rsc.org.uk), until 10 February