Shakespeare Jazz

Shakespeare’s Plays Are More Than Poetic Devise and Deserve Modern Scrutiny and Dramaturgy

“… far too large a proportion of intelligent playgoers know their Shakespeare too well. They are no longer capable of going to the theatre with that willingness to suspend disbelief, which any naive spectator can bring. They go coldly, as specialists, to listen to the over familiar lines, and to watch the actor’s treatment of them. It is their influence on the theatre that has led to the type of Shakespearean production that is not uncommon nowadays, cold, correct, literary, untheatrical, winning great praise, but making no emotional impact on the average spectator.” Peter Brook, Styles in Shakespearean Production. is VERY interested in the average spectator and is dedicated to making available editions of several of Shakespeare’s plays specifically to that purpose.

Professional theatre companies, schools, festivals and community theaters, produce the plays of William Shakespeare throughout the English-speaking world. The plays are quoted from; phrases and words are part of our everyday usage. There are massive tomes written to give clarity to the Elizabethan use of words and phrases, to explain why a particular word play is used to reference something topical or political, or to redefine some thing or word that has a different meaning from a contemporary context. There are endless studies to prove or disprove, whichever way the writer’s argument is leaning, the structure of iambs used in the poetic passages of a play to reinforce the author’s intent. Actors and stage directors are much enamored of these particular texts. And should you have the unfortunate circumstance to attend one of these ponderous discussions meant to prove these improvable hypotheses, you will witness intellectual narcissism and academic pandering that would not have been tolerated in Shakespeare’s day. It is as if the writer of Shakespeare’s plays needs the justification of modern scholars to have life in modern theatre. These sycophants to Elizabethan scholarship, these toady’s to middle-English playwrights and their plays will preach verse and chapter in favor of the archaic pronouns and verbs, bow to those words that no longer have meaning or that the meaning has changed and pound the iambic pentameter regardless that it takes the real and honest characters of the plays and belittles them to mere messengers of poetic structure. How unfortunate. Shakespeare does not need over zealous acolytes to carry his cross. Treating him as a collaborator in a modern time is far more respectful. Moreover, this ersatz intellectual worship of the poetic structure drives the “average” spectator from the church leaving only the acolytes to drone their approval.

When we listen to a piece of “classical” music, by say Bach or Mozart, the time signature and the key signature are there to give specifics to the musicians, perhaps a conductor will instruct certain movements so as to make them feel differently from the last time it filled the ear of the beholder. Give that same piece of music to Dave Brubeck or Art Tatum and all of a sudden there is something else happening – jazz. You hear the over familiar themes and melodies but it speaks to you in a completely different way. Those wanting to speak to a modern theatre audience through “classical” plays, and who have NO desire to make excuses or offer pathetic translations when presenting Shakespeare’s plays should embrace the “jazz” and let the plays sing. offers such pieces of Shakespeare Jazz. You can expect more in the months to come.

John R. Briggs has spent decades collaborating with Shakespeare to create new, provocative and exciting editions of several plays that invite the audience into the world of the characters without drawing attention to the pedantic poetics or the archaic verbs and pronouns. Although Macbeth is set in 13th Century Scotland the structure of the play has been adjusted to accommodate a more modern dramaturgy. Poetic structure gives way to clarity and meaning and the result is dynamic and emotion theatre. The website edition has been produced several times by professional theatre companies to critical acclaim and box office reward. Editions to be included in the future are: Merchant Of Venice: 1938, Shogun Macbeth, Julio Cesar, Richard III, Henry VI part 1, Hamlet, God Father Of Brooklyn and Romeo and Juliet. also offers musicals based on Shakespeare’s plays: Crazy Love, a musical Shrew, Illyria, a 12th Night Musical and Midsummer Dreams. Again, all of these musicals have been produced at significant professional theatres, including Georgia Shakespeare Festival (), Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Florida Shakespeare Festival, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, and Off Broadway Theatre, Ft Lauderdale.

There will always be museum productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and changing the costuming does not make the play more understandable. No artistic director would ever consider presenting Tartuffe to an English speaking audience in French and yet they will make excuses for unintelligible passages in Shakespeare with comments like, “If you emphasize this syllable and wink, “ the audience will get it. You’d never give Tennessee Williams that kind of cushion, and neither should you Shakespeare. He’s a big boy playwright, he can take the collaboration and come out on top. And so will the “average” spectator.

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Since Bram Stoker, in 1897, penned Dracula, it has enticed readers, moviegoers and theatre enthusiasts. Audiences are thrilled by the idea that there exists an irresistible power manifested in a single being, seemingly from the portals of Satan, himself; that only with the grace of God and strength of character can a mortal hope to survive in His presence. We are terrorized by the thought that we could be turned into an un-dead; that we might be condemned to roam the night in search of fresh blood from other humans to quench our thirst to exist. The first play adaptation opened on Broadway in the 1927 to rave reviews and enormous success. A film of the play was introduced in 1931 starring Bella Lugosi that terrorized audiences throughout the world. The Hammer productions of the 1960’s revived Dracula’s popularity, and new stage and film adaptations continued to evolve to the present.

Dracula, Music, and Horror

In recent times there have been several attempts to adapt Dracula into a musical. Only one adaptation has brought the story to the stage as a rock opera. Because the story is a melodrama in form, and because the character Dracula must be dangerous and terrifying to an audience, the usual “musical” forms of song writing fall into the trap of being melodramatic, which works against the necessity of danger and terror. Also, there is, in many instances, an over abundance of ballads to emphasize the “horror”. If there are up-tempo songs, they rest with secondary characters. The greatest offense, though, that in adapting the story attempting to give Dracula some redeeming quality, a reason for Wilhelmina to fall in love with him, as in Francis Coppola’s film version of the story in the 1990’s. These attempts to “humanize” Dracula confuse the very point of his existence as a character: he is the spawn of Hell!

In Dracula, A Rock Opera, many of the barriers that prevented a successful musical adaptation, have been addressed through the genre of rock’n roll. Rock’n roll is, by-and-large, a melodramatic musical form. It seeks to create immediate emotional responses in the listener. This is especially true of “retro-rock,” i.e., Queen, Elton John, Jethro Tull, T-Rex, etc. More over, many of the “hard rock” performers, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, etc, although not particularly terrifying, were, most certainly, “dangerous.” Dracula, A Rock Opera makes use of these built-in traits of rock’n roll to provide the danger and terror of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel. Because rock’n roll has so many styles it is possible to thoroughly address the many qualities of the stories characters, including, and most importantly, Dracula.

Dracula As A Rocker

Dracula, A Rock Opera introduces us to the story and characters as Bram Stoker revealed his: through newspaper accounts, journal and diary entries, books and telegrams. To give the Dracula, A Rock Opera a starting point, we find Dr Van Helsing (the venerable Vampire hunter) reexamining the different writings that tell the story, and in a flashback, we are transported back to Transylvania, to find Jonathan Harker en route to Castle Dracula; and thus, the tale is told. Using rock ballads, rock power ballads and straight rock songs, the audience is carried back to the European world of Gothic superstition and fear. By the end, we are back at Van Helsing’s desk as he closes the book on Count Dracula.

Dracula, A Rock Opera Vetted In Professional Theatre

Dracula, A Rock Opera, written by John R. Briggs and Dennis West, was professionally produced by Meadow Brook Theatre in Detroit, MI, to rave reviews and sold out attendance. Candlewood Playhouse, NY and Clarence Brown Theatre, TN has also successfully produced it. A CD is available through

Dracula, A Rock Opera follows the style of Bram Stoker’s novel more than all other adaptations. Its success spans professional theatre from Florida to Michigan.

Dracula Rocks

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Desiree’s Baby: Relevance of Pre-Civil War Racism Today

Kate Chopin’s painfully insightful short story of pre-Civil War racism does not seem as removed as one might wish. In three pages she spins a tale that leaves the reader thinking they are under the influence of O. Henry, with a twist at the end that leaves the reader mystified, if not horrified.

In adapting her story into a play I was faced with challenges by virtue of the mere sparseness of the piece. The necessity of fleshing out the different characters, the imagining of events only alluded to and capturing the mood of the times, required knowledge of Louisiana and the south, both of which I have.

Picking an old scab

Like her story, the play is a melodrama. It could be argued that writing a play about the cruelty of slavery is past its relevance that it is picking at an old scab that it should be left alone. I disagree.

Politics today

When I look at the current political movement throughout the south I see behavior representative of the antebellum slave owners. It is appalling that in 2012 Caucasians could continue to harbor such atavistic notions, and yet, those notions are there and used to coalesce voting blocks intent on disenfranchising peoples of color.

I’d Rather Be Dead than… Black

When Armand sees that his baby is a mulatto or quadroon, he sends Desiree back to her parents, despite Desiree’s pleas of love to remain. It is incomprehensible to him that he has married a person of color. He believes her parents tricked him into marrying her, knowing what she was. Upon his mother’s return, and her discovery that he has sent Desiree packing, she is forced to reveal an unbearable true: it is Armand who is a descendant of African blood; it is he that is mulatto. This discovery brings him to kill himself. He would rather be dead than live knowing he is part African-American. He tells his mother he cannot face Desiree. He cannot believe that she could ever forgive him for his behavior or that she would ever consider being with a mulatto. He has no remorse for the treatment of his slaves, especially Le Blanche, whom he has repeatedly raped and sired a child with. He cannot bear the look of his slaves as they learn he is of their blood. So deep is his racism and hate that dying, putting a bullet through his own head, is the better alternative.

Are We There Yet?

There is no doubt that the USA has come a good distance since 1851. And yet, throughout the south, the bitterness of racism persists, albeit, all regions of the nation have their share of racism, too. Newt Gingrich uses old Jim Crow code words to encourage racists to vote for him in southern states. He singles out African-Americans as needing to learn how to want paychecks instead of food stamps. He would rather bait racist to win an election than lose on the merit of his record. The fact there is a mulatto President speaks to how far our nation has progressed, and yet, he is thwarted at every turn, regardless of the merit of his action, supposedly because he’s of the opposing party. Most of his actions are in alignment with the other party, so why the obstructionism? What makes him different? Oh yes, he’s half African-American. The Republican Party would rather shoot itself in the head than have a person of color succeed in the White House.

Desiree’s Baby: Relevance of Pre-Civil War Racism Today

Our technology has not overcome the racism of Desiree’s Baby, born in this nation hundreds of years ago, rather, it has given it new places to hide and ways to communicate. Laws have not supplanted the racism of Desiree’s Baby. Economic and social changes have not extinguished the racism of Desiree’s Baby. The significant difference is the Emancipation Proclamation: the law no longer allows us to own another human being.

The language of the play, Desiree’s Baby is disturbing. The brutality of the play is provocative and intended to make the audience uncomfortable. The charm of the language and the antebellum setting is surreal to the violence it nurtures. It is written in the style of the old “pot boilers.” It is a melodrama and tragedy; but then, so are Hamlet and Richard III. It shines an unattractive light on a part of our past that is continually being re-invented by politicians for their own purposes.

Desiree’s Baby: Relevance of Pre-Civil War Racism Today

It is, indeed, relevant, just not desired.

More to come….


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Thomas Paine: The Last Day Of Common Sense

In the past twelve years the founders of the United States have been invoked to support whatever “right” was being abused by whatever group feeling the abuse. It’s always the usual suspects, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, sometimes, even Washington. And, of course, because the times in which these men lived, and extraordinary achievements they authored, they provided thousands of pages of diverse thought and intellectual free thinking, which is much fodder for today’s charlatan to draw from. What is curious, however, is the absence of Thomas Paine from these discussions. As students in school we are reminded that he wrote something called Common Sense, which played some part in the lead up to the Revolutionary War. He is then shuffled into the shadows, as the light of history glares upon the others of his time. Was he just a footnote to the period? Was his contribution so insignificant as to warrant such shabby treatment in American history? Or could it be that something happened to cause his trivialization?

The play, The Last Day Of Common Sense, offers suggestions as to why he is all but forgotten.

Paine’s early life was rather typical of people in his time; he was the son of a corset maker in the town of Thetford, England. He was educated briefly in the Church of England, on his mother’s side, and the Quakers on his father’s side. He was a quick study and showed uncommon wit. From his earliest remembrances, he watched the convicted men of his village hanged every spring. He saw first hand the justice of feudal England, of what it meant to be born into privilege with almost unfettered power and sway over the peasants and craftsmen.

After the failure of his first marriage and death of his second wife in childbirth, he ended up in London. There, by happenstance, he met Benjamin Franklin. Franklin recognized something in him and gave him a letter of introduction and reference, which he used upon coming to Philadelphia. Franklin’s grandson gave him a position writing for the Pennsylvania Magazine. It was 1774. His first major essay was against slavery, the first of its kind.

As one would imagine, Philadelphia, at that time, was a hotbed of political activity. The British were occupying Boston and the Continental Congress was in state of quandary as to what action to take. In January of 1776 Thomas Paine published Common Sense, and thus began the journey resulting in a new nation. As John Adams would write: “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” It became the best selling book of all time in the thirteen states. And most of the money derived from it went to the war effort. After the Revolution was in full force, and as Washington’s army was in full retreat from Cornwallis, Paine wrote the first of 13 essays entitled the American Crisis. As Washington narrowly escaped utter defeat, by crossing the Delaware River in to Pennsylvania, Paine handed him the first essay. “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Washington had it distributed to his battle weary troops who then daringly crossed back over the river and handed Cornwallis his first defeat of the war. That essay inspired Washington and his army to fight on and to win the independence of the United States, a term first used by Thomas Paine.

How could so inspirational a founding father be relegated to the dustbin of American history?

The Last Day Of Common Sense hypothesizes that he was removed from the “A” list of founding fathers due to the efforts of Christian religious zealots, in particularly the Quakers, which must be seen as ironic, at the very least. Paine’s last major work, The Age Of Reason, was a scathing attack on all organized religions but most especially on Christianity. Upon his return to the United States, he was disparaged by the press as an atheist and rebuked continually as a plagiarist of John Locke, neither of which is true. Unlike his fellow founders, he was deeply involved in the movement to democratize Great Briton (Rights Of Man) and a member of the legislative corp during the French Revolution, where he nearly was beheaded, by way of a conspiracy between Robespierre and Gouverneur Morris.

The Last Day Of Common Sense ( ) is filled with recognized historic figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Gouverneur Morris, John and Abigail Adams and James Madison. They come to life as they interact with Thomas Paine. We see the conspiracy to denigrate him unfold during the last day of his life. We also see the conspiracy unfold ten years after his death. We see him with his insecurities, his incredible integrity and as he speaks his final words. licenses The Last Day Of Common Sense, where it can be downloaded and previewed at no expense.

With the elections at hand, this is play for the times.

More to come….


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Georgia Shakespeare Festival Produces Illyria

Georgia Shakespeare Festival ( ) brings back Illyria, or Twelfth Night, The Musical, this summer, 2012.

It was last produced by Virginia Shakespeare Festival ( ) in 2006, where it received wonderful reviews ( ). It is an example of an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays into a genre that is wholly American. It also serves as an example of what I was discussing yesterday in my blog on Cutting the Gordian Knot of Shakespearean Production.

In most instances, I have kept the Bard’s text, and in some cases maintained the verse, as well, between musical numbers. There are times when I have eliminated the archaic verbs and pronouns, although, in some instances, I have kept some of those, for purposes of satisfying the “purist’s” need. In several instances, I have used text directly from the script to create the lyric of a song. In all instances, the songs and lyrics are drawn directly from what Shakespeare intended by the character within the specific scene.

However, using a contemporary model (Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat), I have written an eclectic collection of song styles to represent the different characters as we find them in their different situations throughout the story. For the general audience this will seem not unlike going to a Disney animated film, i.e., Little Mermaid, where this technique is often used. It also allows for styles like Rock’n Roll, C&W, Jazz, Vaudeville and others to exist within the storyline seamlessly. I mean, if “…music is the food of love…” then let’s have as much and as many different kinds of it as entertains. As the AD at Virginia Shakes put it, the characters are in such a state of passion that they must burst into song, whatever “kind” of song that might be.

For the audience that knows the play Twelfth Night, they are fascinated by the use of Shakespeare’s text as a means to blend into and out of musical numbers. They find themselves wondering what will come next, how a certain character will respond musically to the circumstances of the scene. In other words, as mentioned in yesterday’s blog, they become involved in the story and the characters because they are denied the ability to go throw the over-familiar lines in the sequence to which they are accustom. They actually experience the play in much the same way one might imagine the Elizabethan audience experiencing it. For those who come as virgins, they discover that this playwright from their English class is funny, witty, sagacious and contemporary. It fulfills the very essence of yesterday’s blog.

When Georgia Shakespeare Festival revives Illyria this summer it will be their fifth production of one of my musicals, and the only one that was actually requested as a written piece. In 1993, GSF produced my musical Crazy Love (then titled Shrew, The Musical ( ) licenses both musicals for educational and commercial production. Illyria was first produced in the big tent, which was always a bit of a challenge but more so with a musical. And, because it was the first production, there were things to be learnt about what worked and what didn’t. Whatever those issues were they got worked out in subsequent productions and the VSF production verified it as a genuine audience pleaser and box office winner. Giving further evidence that Shakespeare Jazz can be used to bring in new and different audiences.

GSF, Richard Garner, Producing Artistic Director, is one of those rare theatre companies that embrace Shakespeare Jazz. And they have allowed me incredible interpretive freedom in creating Illyria and Crazy Love, but also in re-imagining The Merchant of Venice: 1938, Hamlet, Godfather of Brooklyn and Macbeth, all of which will be licensed by in the coming months. The same can be said of Virginia Shakespeare Festival’s, Christopher Owen, Producing Artistic Director. When you find yourself in Atlanta or Williamsburg, you should make it a priority to attend a performance.

Georgia Shakespeare Festival ( ) brings back Illyria, or Twelfth Night, The Musical, this summer, 2012; and I couldn’t be happier. Join the party in June, July or the first of August. See what Shakespeare Jazz is all about. In the mean time visit ) and see what’s in store this summer.

More to come….


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Beginning in high school and throughout my time at university and well into my professional beginnings, like most people, I was indoctrinated to believe that Shakespeare’s plays survived because of the poetry, the mostly iambic pentameter, and how it was used to tell a story, create character, etc., etc. etc.

As one of the founders, and in the founding season of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, it was my responsibility to direct Romeo and Juliet. Living so closely to Newport, RI, I was inspired to give the play a Great Gatsby feel. It worked well enough, but what I walked away with was that it didn’t matter if one of the Bard’s plays is given new costumes or settings or technical innovation, because you were left with these impossible archaic verbs and pronouns, and, in many cases, rhyming couplets that drew more attention to the rhyme than the thought intended. No doubt, to the Elizabethan audiences, this was all well and good, especially since playwrights had to write in verse.

Some years later, as the assistant AD at Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, I was given the assignment to direct a cowboy-set production of The Taming Of The Shrew. I spent weeks culling the best bits of the play and typing it out into standard play format. As you would expect, there was resistance from the cast members who had done “Shakespeare.” It would be the first but certainly not the last time the phrase “dumbing-down” would be leveled. The interesting and, to my way of thinking, the most important part of that production was the audience reaction to it, which was universally positive. Far too many persons found it to be understandable, recognizable and enjoyable. My goal was to bring the story to the general public, a public with very limited training in Elizabethan language, other than the King James Bible, which is also responsible for misinterpretation and representation of the original texts because of the poetic form and use of archaic language.

The next project, again with the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, was Macbeth. Using the best of the Bard’s words and story but making the location real to the setting and adding writings from sources real to that setting: Shogun Macbeth (published by Samuel French) was born. It resonated with the audience so viscerally that it was moved to NYC by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre the same season, where it also found immediate favor and acceptance.

If you give Herbie Hancock a piece by Mozart, or Stephen Foster, or Richard Rogers, or P Diddy, the roots, the themes of the song writer will be found throughout but you may be assured that there will be innovations to those themes and roots that will bring you into the original piece, in ways you never dreamed. I approach Shakespeare in the same way, as a collaborator, not sacrosanct. I treat him no differently than he treated the writers from whom he “borrowed.”

“… far too large a proportion of intelligent playgoers know their Shakespeare too well. They are no longer capable of going to the theatre with that willingness to suspend disbelief, which any naïve spectator can bring. They go coldly, as specialists, to listen to the over familiar lives, and to watch the actor’s treatment of them. It is their influence on the theatre that has led to the type of Shakespearean production that is not uncommon nowadays, cold, correct, literary, un-theatrical, winning great praise but making no emotional impact on the average spectator.”

Peter Brook – Style in Shakespeare Production

Even though Peter Brook would argue that what he intended in the aforementioned quote and what I aspire to do are not necessarily the same thing, I would argue that Shakespeare Jazz is an American approach to a great Renaissance writer and that to most of the “ordinary” theatre going public it is far more informative and entertaining than the best of the alternative.

That said, 99% of all Shakespeare festivals are dedicated to the museum-like thinking that gives credence to Brooks’ observation above. I don’t see that changing.

What would be interesting is that while these stalwarts of the status quo continue their never ending arguments in favor of strict adherence to the archaic and arcane verbs, pronouns and the meaningless Elizabethan descriptions of daily living , in conjunction with the mind-numbing pounding of the verse and its inexorable domination of the actor; what would be interesting is the application of some Jazz into the mix. But the Festivals are managed by those who have spend tens of thousands of dollars learning all the ins and outs of Elizabethan poetry and meanings of the imagery, references and alludings to the goings on in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s of Europe. The idea of updating is impossible, with few exceptions. I have certainly been afforded enormous leeway by several different Festivals and Artistic Directors. Nevertheless, there is far too little Jazz being made of Shakespeare’s substantial tunes. was created to offer those looking to try something different. Currently there are four offerings, three musical adaptations: Crazy Love (The Taming Of The Shrew), Illyria (Twelfth Night), and Midsummer Dreams (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). There is also a Jazz working of Macbeth. All of these scripts have been produced professionally multiple times. They come with reviews from major market newspapers like the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Miami Herald.

Shakespeare Jazz doesn’t mean you always change the period the play is set in or the country or the complete dismantling of the verse. It means telling Shakespeare’s story, keeping all the best bits, without the obfuscation of archaic words and imposed poetic meter.

More to come…


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