There is an interesting article in today’s Guardian (6th January, 8 and 9pp. in G2) describing a musical version of a Midsummer Night’s Dream that incorporated the swing style of jazz that was still very popular at the time of the show’s opening on 29th November 1939. The band included some of the leading jazz players of the time, with the Benny Goodman Quartet playing on one side of the stage and a band led by tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman playing on the other side. Furthermore, Louis Armstrong was cast in the role of Bottom, and there was a group of 17 dancers who tap danced and jitterbugged.
The show with the title Swingin’ The Dream was expected to be a great hit, but flopped closing down after just 13 performances. Apparently it lost $100,000 equivalent to $2m today. It seems that audiences were not ready to see black performers play Shakespeare, and were disappointed that the jazz players were unable to show their full creativity.
You can read the article here.
The good news is that the reason for the article is that the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and New York’s Theatre For A New Audience are combining to record an updated ‘work in progress’ version of the show.
I am intrigued by the choice of players for the band. The musical director is Peter Edwards, an excellent choice given his work directing the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, and collaborating with The Clod Ensemble on improvisation in dance and music. At the recent London Jazz Festival Peter and the Clod Ensemble’s Artistic Director Suzy Willson introduced a performance by the Ensemble to Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.
On bass is Neil Charles, known for his own composition work and for a fascinating solo bass album (Low and Beyond on the Otoroku label). Then on trumpet is Chris Storr, a player I first heard with the Midlands Youth Jazz orchestra (MYJO), probably about 30 years ago. Since then he has become a regular member of the trumpet section of Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and of the band touring with the Strictly Come Dancing show. I remember a gig Birmingham Jazz put on long ago at Birmingham’s Jam House in which Chris led a quintet playing the complete set of Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, and have since then felt that Chris could do a great jazz project. But unfortunately I have never got round to asking him!
The rest of the band consists of two players I do not know: saxophonist Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson and drummer Sam Barrell Jones. They have come to this project via the Nu Civilisation Orchestra and Tomorrow’s Warriors.
Vocalist Zara McFarlane is also part of the acting cast, i.e. The Ensemble; the preview does not make her role clear, but I am sure she will play a really strong part in the production.
It is wonderful to see these musicians playing a key role in what is likely to be a great show. It is due to be streamed this Saturday 9th August at 7pm, see here.