Romeo and Juliet, the first romantic tragedy written by William Shakespeare (1546-1616) is believed to have been written in 1595, but the story had already existed. Apparently his major source was a poem, The Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet, published in 1562 by the English translator Arthur Brooke, who in turn based his creation on works by the Italians Masuccio Salernitano (1476) and Luigi da Porto (1530).
Romeo and Juliet continues to pack its powerful emotional punch no matter if you’ve seen the play several times in your own lifetime. One vivid way to experience it is via the filmed 2009 performance at Shakespeare’s Globe (a London venue opened in 1997 and intended to reconstruct as closely as possible the Elizabethan one built in 1599). In that production, on the small stage with a minimum of backdrops, the cast offers extraordinary physical acting plus skilled swordplay. Most importantly, the leading actor and actress easily lead the audience to believe that this young “star-cros’t” duo could fall in love in such a passionate and quick way, then arrange a secret marriage to avoid the condemnation of their respective Capulet and Montague families. The tragic ending, brought on by swords, an unusual potion, and a knife, still brings tears to the eyes of audience members. The last scenes do not lend themselves to joyous dancing or singing or playing of instruments. Yet these three arts were a part of what the playwright dubbed the “two-hours’ traffic” onstage, and at the Globe, period instruments are used for the brief party dance, and singers sing.
Act I, scene V, Romeo and Juliet
[Musicians waiting at Capulet’s house. Capulet addresses guests and Maskers.]
“Welcome, gentlemen! ladies that have their toes
Unplagued with corns will have a bout with you;—
Ah ha, my mistresses! Which of you all
Will now deny to dance? she that makes dainty,
She, I’ll swear, hath corns; am I come near ye now?
Welcome, gentlemen! I have seen the day
That I have worn a visor; and could tell
A whispering tale in a fair lady’s ear,
Such as would please; ’tis gone, ’tis gone, ’tis gone:
You are welcome, gentlemen! Come, musicians, play.
A hall, a hall! give room! and foot it girls—
[Music plays, and they dance.]
With this scene, Shakespeare is drawing from actual social customs of the English Renaissance, when wealthy families would hold balls, with the invited guests coming in costumes, and masked people entering even if they were unknown. It was permissible for the nobles to dance with the masked people. Thus, Romeo and his two male companions are able to enter into the Capulets’ ball without particular notice or problem.
As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his companion book on Shakespeare, even when the head of the Capulet family recognizes Romeo, he asks his objecting relatives to leave the young man alone. This may be just one indication that the dislike between the Capulets and the Montagues was dwindling and was no longer a “blood feud,” except for Tybalt. Asimov goes on to suggest that the whole idea of a secret marriage—and the subsequent silence about it on the part of Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Laurence, were not necessary. But then, isn’t that the basis of all tragedy: that things are done or left undone that are not necessary? However, if that were not the case, there would be no Romeo and Juliet story…no Shakespeare play, no Gounod opera, no Prokofiev score or ballets by Bronislava Nijinska or Kenneth MacMillan…no West Side Story.
But back to Shakespeare: in this play, the masked dancers are all just part of a ballroom scene. (The “visor” mentioned by Capulet does indeed refer to a costume mask.) The playwright does not specify what kind of music should be played for his Act I Scene 5, so nowadays directors make their own choices. There are also places in this and other plays where ballads were introduced, and again, in contemporary performances, directors usually just select whatever music they feel is suitable, drawing upon arrangements for live instrumentalists, or making use of some of the excellent “early music” recordings of actual Renaissance melodies.
At the 38th annual professional Shakespeare Festival at the College of William & Mary, for their intermission “Bard’s Market,” I punched in a harpsichord setting on an electric keyboard and played selections from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (an historical collection including many variations on popular dance tunes from Elizabethan times) plus a few dance tunes published in John Playford’s collections The English Dancing Master. His collections of tunes and directions for the physical dances were published in 18 different editions dating from 1650, including many melodies passed down from before then—among them “Heart’s Ease.”
Why mention “Heart’s Ease”? Well, because in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the character Peter says: “Musicians, O, musicians, Heart’s ease, Heart’s ease: O, an you will have me live, play Heart’s ease.” To which the fiddler replies: “Why Heart’s ease?” And then the character Peter says: “O, musicians, because my heart itself plays My heart is full of woe: O, play me some merry dump, to comfort me.”
This is only one of the ballads with words and music presented in a unique book by Ross W. Duffin: Shakespeare’s Songbook. “Heart’s ease” apparently was sung to two possible tunes, and one of them is notated in the book. As the author explains in an enlightening introduction, during Shakespeare’s time words to ballads were printed on fragile “broadsides” and sold in fairly large numbers, but without the musical notation because most people would have known the popular tunes. Often there would be an indication under the ballad title of what melody to use for the newly-written words.
During Shakespeare’s plays, there would have been actual singing and in various scenes, also dancing to some ballads. Additionally sometimes simply verbal references were made to ballads that everybody in the audience would likely have known. It should be noted that for dancing, the accompaniment might have been purely instrumental; but it was also a general Renaissance practice to dance to vocal music, either solo songs or ensembles of several voices.
Before the performances, there would be music for perhaps as much as an hour while the audience came and found their places for viewing. And after the plays, it was the custom at the Globe to have “jigs”—entertainments featuring dances unrelated to the plots, often quite farcical. But they could have included any kind of dance—some comic, some more stately as the professional performers and musicians chose. Apparently some of the bawdy content and the audience responses to post-performance dance jig entertainment at some theaters over the years became so rowdy that restrictions were ordered in 1612. (It seems that literally the jigs were supposed to be up! However, not for long.)
We don’t know exactly what pieces were played as part of the jigs, but a good guess is that some of the instrumental variations in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book were based on tunes that were popular in Shakespeare’s time. As far as instruments used, for openers pictures of the leading jig comedians portray pipe and tabor and bells on the legs. (For anybody considering mounting a jig for an Elizabethan festival, see notes below.)
As far as more formal theatrical dancing is concerned, Romeo and Juliet through the centuries has inspired some of the most outstanding choreographers and performers to collaborate with composers of their own time, or to use music from generations gone before.
Our next consideration of Romeo and Juliet’s story will be an operatic work, albeit one with at least a brief dance scene to be true to Shakespeare.
notes and explorations:
The Shakespeare’s Globe theatre performance is on an Opus Arte DVD. Starring Ellie Kendrick as the emotional young Juliet and Adetomiwa Edun as the Romeo who switches from his old love to new passion in a matter of seconds. The entire cast is outstanding, and the setting does serve to transport viewers back to Shakespeare’s day. The dancing is rather natural and folk-like, and reoccurs in place of a curtain call to change the theatre’s mood from tragedy to appreciation for acting. Highly recommended.
It is interesting to compare how various live performances deal with the dance scene. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie, he sets the play in both outdoor and indoor locations in Rome as if it were a documentary. Musically, there is a mixture of Hollywood style overlay of orchestral mood evocations, with some reasonable pseudo-Renaissance instrumental and vocal sections. Pointedly, Romeo first spies Juliet while she is dancing, and of course is smitten as never before. At one point, Lady Capulet announces a “moresca” dance, for which the ladies put on bells—a nice historically accurate touch. The choreography was by Alberto Testa, music by Nino Rota. (Paramount DVD.)
Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (New York: Wings Books, 1970) offers historical and literary notes to all the plays.
According to the education website of the Globe Theatre in London, Romeo and Juliet was probably first performed in The Curtain theatre in Shoreditch, and subsequently at London’s famous original Globe after it was built in 1599. For information about how Shakespeare’s plays are produced nowadays at the Globe Theatre, go to https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/learn/ At this writing, their choreographer has mounted a brief explanation of what a “jig” was and how she worked with actors to create original “jigs” rehearsal. Also, article about jigs with link to The Guardian. https://napashakes.org/2015/06/the-jig-is-up/ Includes film of a dance jig.
Well-established by Shakespeare’s time, masked entertainments at court also took place in his time, known as “masques.” These were grand enlargements of ballroom gatherings and functioned as lavish rehearsed theatrical spectacles, particularly in the early decades of the 17th century. For a brief introduction, see the entry on “Masques” in the IED, vol. 4, by Andrew J. Sabol. He outlines three sections of such entertainments: the first would be the “visored masquers” who were artistocracy often costumed as medieval knights. Next came the satiric “antimasques” with greater range of movement, done by professionals. And last came the “revels” during which the masked nobles would invite members of the audience to join them in a lengthy time of social dance.
Sabol reports that the melodies to which the masquers danced were often ones that were already familiar. Sometimes in their rehearsals, the dance master would play just the melodies on his solo violin, then jot down the tunes for a composer to fill out. Importantly, the author explains that “In most cases, the original Jacobean scores—never expected to be repeated and hence never preserved—were the work of several collaborating choreographers and composers. Since the masquers are the focal performers, and since they express themselves only in movement and never speak or sing, the masque can be seen as an ancestor of the ballet.”
An introductory essay about the English masques, identifying some specific composers, can be found in the New Grove, vol. 16, pp. 42-58, by Murray Lefkowitz. He mentions that “Elizabeth I, although frugal in her habits, was a devotee of music and dancing and participated in and supported a number of masque productions.” Regarding the music, he reports while the scores have not survived, yet some first-hand descriptions have: for instance, at one event in 1607, the musical instruments included bass, lutes, bandera, sackbut, harpsichord and 2 violins on one side; on the other were 9 violins, 3 lutes, 6 cornets, and 6 vocalists. At another event, as many as 69 instrumentalists and vocalists were counted! A longer scholarly work is Barbara Revelhofer, The Early Stuart Masque: Dance, Costume, and Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
For playable Elizabethan keyboard music, see The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, edited by J. A. Fuller Maitland and W. Barclay Squire (in two volumes, New York: Dover Publications, 1963, republication of the work originally published by Breitkopf and Hartel in 1899). The modern notation is easily readable by today’s pianists and harpsichordists. Another volume, with such then-popular tunes and many dances, is My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music, by William Byrd. (New York: Dover Publications, 1969. Edited and with historical notes by Hilda Andrews). This also is in modern notation, but Includes suggestions for playing the period ornamentation. Some of the possible jig tunes are Walsingham, The Spanish Pavan, Sellengers Round, and Watkins Ale.
For an edition that includes word directions for the country dances plus tunes delivered in modern notation, go to Kate Van Winkle Keller and Genevieve Shimer, The Playford Ball: 103 Early Country Dances 1651-1820 as Interpreted by Cecil Sharp and His Followers (Pennington, NY: Society of Dance History Scholars at Princeton Periodicals, Studies in Dance History, Vol. 1 No. 2, Spring/Summer 1990). A music book with just the 535 tunes and variants from the 18 original Playford editions, in modern notation, is Jeremy Barlow, editor, The Complete Country Dance Tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master 1651-1728 (London: Farber Music Ltd.: 1985). #49 is just the melody to “Kemp’s Jig.” Barlow has also made several CDs with a selection of these tunes performed by the Broadside Band, including one entire CD titled The Songs and Dances of Shakespeare (1995) and one titled English Country Dances (2011).
A most unusual book to browse through or use in conjunction with any Shakespeare production that you might be involved in, is Ross W. Duffin, Shakespeare’s Songbook (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004) with an audio disc. The author has delved into every single reference to every single song in every Shakespeare play and offers a beautiful collection of lyrics, notated melodies, quotations from the plays, and brief commentaries on each excerpt. Most often, of course, he could not identify precisely what tune would have been used for the words, but he offers plausible melodies that work for many in addition to some that seem convincingly authentic. Quite unique!
An extensive treatment of the subject of jigs is R. Clegg and L. Skeaping, Singing Simpkin and Other Bawdy Jigs: Musical Comedy on the Shakespearean Stage: Music, Scripts & Context. (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2014). There is also a related Hyperion CD titled English Stage Jig. The book provides the history of jigs, then although there is scant evidence of the specific music that might have been used, the authors provide scripts for nine such entertainments, including plausible notated melodies with suggested harmonic chord indications, advice on possible instruments, written instructions on how you might do the dance steps if you want to offer an impression of what post-play jigs might have been like. Also see Charles Read Baskervill, The Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama (New York: Dover Publications 1965 republication of the 1929 edition published by the University of Chicago Press.)
The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) wrote eleven operas, the most famous being Faust (1859) and Romeo et Juliette (1867). He was not the first composer to set Shakespeare’s story for singers, but this is one opera that is still performed in our time. So now we have Shakespeare’s English words becoming the basis for a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, and the plot was condensed and changed here and there (for instance, omitting the final reconciliation of the Capulet and Montague families, and having Juliet awaken at the end just in time to sing one last love duet with the already dying Romeo). The smooth sounds of the French language give the opera a flavor quite different from the more sharply accented English play. The 19th century Romantic orchestral music and emotional singing enhance this retelling.
Dance, however, remains crucial in all versions of this story. The masked ball at the Capulets occurs immediately in Scene 1 of Gounod’s opera, but the music is a mazurka, a popular 19th century folk-based dance, certainly nothing to do with aristocratic dances in Shakespeare’s time. The typical sharply dotted note rhythms invite dancing, interspersed with less vigorous phrases to make it easier for the chorus to sing. And just before Juliet meets Romeo, she sings her most famous coloratura aria, in fact dubbed the Waltz Song. At the end of the first act, Lord Capulet wishes to calm everyone and suggests that all the guests go back to dancing—again, to a mazurka, with choral commentary.
There is another dance section sometimes embedded in the opera by tradition. For Act IV, Gounod was obliged to add a ballet (a year after its premiere) for the performances at the National Opera in Paris. Dance historians tell us about the fashionable “Jockey Club” who insisted on having ballets inserted into operas, and this was one case in which they got their way. In his guide 100 Great Operas and Their Stories,Henry Simon remarked: “The ballet makes no dramatic sense at all, but the music is rather pretty.”
That ballet was not included in the stunning performance of Gounod’s opera at the 2008 Salzburg Festival—a performance dubbed “sensational” by many who attended, and which fortunately was captured on film so you can see it on DVD. The dance choreography is credited to Chase Brock, and the beaked masks and elaborate head-dresses (in the style of the Italian commedia dell’arte) contribute to establishing the setting of a masked ball.
But as to the dance performed in the Salzburg production, the fact that the women in the cast wore long costumes, and furthermore, that everybody had to sing during the mazurka, inhibited the extent of the physical movement, in addition to the somewhat crowded space allotted by a raised platform. This is not a vigorous folk-style mazurka; rather more of swaying, modest turns, contained partnering, and a circle within a circle. Nevertheless, the presentation is believable in establishing this crucial setting.
The choreographer for the 2008 Salzburg production, Chase Brock, also set the choreography for the production for the Metropolitan Opera in 2016-17, which was repeated the following season with Placido Domingo conducting.
It is fascinating to see the different ways in which Shakespeare’s ballroom scene has been depicted as drama, opera, ballet, and musical. Moving on now: to a 20th century ballet set to a 19th century orchestral concert work not intended for the theatrical stage!
notes and investigations:
Henry Simon, 100 Great Operas and Their Stories (New York: Anchor Books 1989 reprint of original 1957 work).
The DVD of the Salzburg performance is on Deutsche Grammophon. The cast starred Nino Machaidze and Rolando Villazon, and the conductor was the Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The singing and acting were so superb, that members of the orchestra can be seen applauding with the audience after the “Waltz Song” aria. The DVD mercifully offers English subtitles. For information and still photos from the production, go to https://chasebrock.com/ and click on the picture from the opera.
A very familiar melody is the waltz aria sung by Juliette in this opera. There are a number of performances that can be viewed on You Tube, but one that is really special is by Kathleen Battle, in a concert setting. As of 2018 it could be accessed as follows: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBAgMdJRf10 Not at all Renaissance in style, but certainly gorgeous in 19th century style composition as sung by this 21st century soprano.
Just the music for the Act IV ballet can be heard on a You Tube clip, performed by live orchestra conducted by Roman Brogli-Sacher. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-_CO9-KeNs As Henry Simon suggested, the music is very pretty, though usually not included in performances of Gounod’s opera.
The Metropolitan Opera’s very lavish production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette was shown on PBS in 2017 and can be viewed online for a small fee via Met on Demand.
By way of identifying this American choreographer, here is a totally different creation by the colorfully imaginative choreographer Chase Brock, at the 2017 Gypsy of the Year event https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lChtYL6u9U0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHRVugMhGYE brief clip of Chase Brock demonstrating a combination for a determined participant of “Be More Chiseled.”
https://chasebrock.com/ for more information about the person that dance artist Matthew Bourne called “the most exciting choreographer of his generation.” Chase Brock’s varied credits include Spiderman!
The Romeo and Juliet Overture written in 1880 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is an orchestral work complete in itself, but one that manages to give us an emotional and musical synopsis of Shakespeare’s play. No words, no actors, no dance. The music is normally heard only in orchestral concerts. But it could be performed not only as an extended (nearly 19 minute) introduction to a dramatic performance; it could also lend itself to choreography by dancers of today who want to present an abbreviated balletic suggestion of the story. Indeed, in 1938 the choreographer Willam Christensen used Tchaikovsky’s overture for his one-act setting performed by the San Francisco Ballet. Since then the San Francisco productions have used Prokofiev’s score, as choreographed by Michael Smuin in the 1970s (with the much-admired ballerina Evelyn Cisneros as Juliet), and set by Helgi Tomasson in 2015.
Tchaikovsky actually worked on three versions of his overture: the first starting in 1869, when he was just 28 and teaching at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. That was premiered in 1870, but upon the urging of a Russian composer colleague, Tchaikovsky made a revision that was first played in 1872; and finally, eight years later, he made more changes—and that is the version that has been used ever since.
The overture is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and the usual string section (violin I, violin II, viola, cello, and basses).
One need not be a performing musician to grasp the different elements and progression of Tchaikovsky’s creation. Put on a CD (perhaps the recording done in 1989 by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy). Without looking at any notated score, as the dramatic music begins, our ears alone can hear all this quite clearly:
A somber quiet timbre of just clarinets and bassoons makes us curious about scenes to come. We hear short sound suggestions rather than any long melody. However, there is a chord progression and a march-like simple rhythm that will be developed later in the piece. A crescendo, and a harp enters. Shhhh! There is a story to be told.
Pizzicato plucked strings accompany the reintroduction of the first melody, now played by higher woodwinds. Deep bass strings offer a contrast. Then there are moments akin to those when window curtains are drawn aside to reveal the day—or in this case, the play’s drama! But then there is an underlying sense of foreboding, and the whole orchestra comes in strongly, only to be cut off by the timpani. The piece explodes into turbulent and strident rhythms suggestive of combat, everybody playing at once.
All the turmoil is quieted, and the “love theme” swells for the first time in the cellos along with the clarinet. The horns add their little bit with a kind of “sighing” suggested by a simple two-note slurred figure.
Unlike composers of the previous century, Tchaikovsky used sudden changes with ever-increasing dynamic marks. Not just f for “forte. Not just ff for “fortissimo.” No: fff for fortississimo: really really loudI And ppp for pianississimo: really really soft! Then running passages and vibrating tremolos for the strings, very very fast, and of course with all the players bowing and fingering the right notes simultaneously—no matter what!
The tension builds. The opening chorale is now in the horns. Along the way, the oboe has that little calming figuration that the strings had played earlier, while the strings take up the sighing figure. Trumpets take the intensity up to the stratosphere—only to give way to the return of the love theme in full orchestral bloom. One can imagine a romantic pas de deux culminating in Romeo lifting Juliet as high as he can—she holding the pose for as long as she can.
As the piece progresses, this easily-recognizable melody comes back in different instrumental combinations, sometimes very passionate, sometimes mixed with a sense of impending tragedy as a touch of minor mode colors the theme. At one point the addition of timpani beats makes it sound like a funeral march.
The music gets considerably softer, and the love theme is interrupted again by those harsher rhythms. A return of the initial foreboding chords, all cut off by a timpani roll. At one point there is a lovely, reverent chorale of winds. The harp enters; then the strings offer a final transformation of the love theme. Another timpani roll; final stark chords.
The audience is quiet in amazement.
Then: usually, thunderous applause.
What a composer; what a piece! And what emotional impetus it must have given to the dancers onstage during the San Francisco Ballet’s 1938 performance!
notes and explorations:
One suggested recording is by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy and issued as a Decca CD in 2011. Another good one is by Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth Symphony. There are quite a few other CD recordings of this work, and some performances can also be heard easily via You Tube.
Another musical Romeo and Juliet intended purely for listening in concerts was composed by Hector Berlioz in 1838 as a “choral symphony.” A choreographic setting of some of the music was made by Donald Saddler in 1961 and televised with the “Corps de Ballet of the Bell Telephone Hour.” Violette Verdy and Jacques d’Amboise portrayed the lead roles, and the actor John Gielgud introduced the scene where the two meet by reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18. Later the music is suspended while Gielgud intones the sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…” as Romeo first spots Juliet. You can see a good clip mounted by John Clifford on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w27qyLDYAPs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Saddler Bio and credits for this American dancer/choreographer.
Tchaikovsky’s “love theme” may sound familiar even to those who listen to the full orchestral work for the first time. This is probably because the melody (being long in public domain) has been used as background in many movies and television shows.
A full orchestra score of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture is available from Dover Publications (New York: 1986, third, 1880 version, with Russian remarks translated into English.) For those who can read music—or are just learning—this is a fairly easy score to follow.
During the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the San Francisco Ballet showed film clips of Willam Christensen’s Romeo and Juliet. If you are unfamiliar with the notable ballet careers of Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen and their work with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, an informative and enjoyable triple biography by Debra Hickenlooper Sowell is Christensen Brothers: An American Dance Epic (New York: Routledge, 2014 republication of work originally published in 1998 by Harwood Academic Publishers).
Information about some other choreographic versions of Romeo and Juliet is included in the IED entry written by Rita Feliciano—with mention of a staging by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1811. Music was by the composer Claus Schall. The choreographer was Vincenzo Galleotti.
Constant Lambert (1905-1951) was the first of only two British composers to be commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, precisely for a unique Romeo and Juliet.
Lambert was then just 20 years old. Nobody could guess that ahead of him lay a brilliant career with British ballet, especially given his early life. He had had a difficult time growing up, because due to severe strep illness and many operations as a child he missed five terms of school (ending up being deaf in one ear and with a limp in one leg for the rest of his life). Nevertheless he was able to enter the Royal College of Music in 1922, where he began his composition studies under Ralph Vaughan-Williams and R.O. Morris, and where he was generally regarded as a “whiz kid.” The famous economist John Maynard Keynes (husband of the Russian-born ballerina Lydia Lopokova) later was said to consider Constant Lambert potentially the most brilliant man he would ever meet, and throughout the musician’s life, his colleagues were effusive about his wit, his good humor, his self-taught knowledge of all the arts, and his enormous talent.
When the young Constant was fortunate to meet the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, he played him a bit of his piano score for a ballet suite which he had titled Adam and Eve. Diaghilev substituted the title Romeo and Juliet, changed the story, and arranged for the Russian choreographer Bronislava Nijinska to mount the ballet in Monte Carlo.
The composer was furious about last-minute changes that were made, mainly with the sets and Nijinska’s choreography in her absence. Among the things the composer did not like was the addition of a march between the two scenes. Consequently, this section was done in silence, directed by George Balanchine, in which the curtain was raised just a little way so that all the audience could see were the feet and part of the dancers’ legs as they made their way to positions onstage!
But despite all that, the composer’s Romeo and Juliet was premiered on May 4, 1926, and as time went on, ballet as a genre was to become the mainstay of Constant Lambert’s musical career. He is credited with much of the success of early 20th century ballet in England, as conductor/arranger for the fledgling Camargo Society and then Sadler’s Wells Ballet for sixteen years, collaborating closely with Ninette de Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton. He accompanied rehearsals and tours as pianist, arranged older scores to suit choreographers, and despite a demanding schedule, was able to compose orchestral, chamber, piano, and vocal works as well as original ballet scores. Additionally he conducted symphony concerts and operas, had regular BBC radio programs, and wrote music columns for leading newspapers. Then there was a book on contemporary music. Yet for all this, because of scarce funding for artistic creation and performance in those times, he earned very little and often had to borrow to make ends meet for even a modest living. Lambert died too early (mainly of undiagnosed diabetes) two days short of his 46th birthday. He left behind recordings which he conducted—including Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet—as well as scores for his own compositions. The following ballets by Lambert can be heard today on CD:
Prize Fight, 1923; Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat, 1923;
Romeo and Juliet, 1926; Pomona, 1927; Horoscope, 1938; and Tiresias, 1951.
It is easy to imagine mental choreography to Lambert’s 31-minute Romeo and Juliet, for the music is very kinetic. In addition, the composer had an extraordinary command of orchestration that made each section colorfully distinct. His style was basically tonal in a neoclassic vein, but with effective dashes of dissonance and extremely elegant and interesting lines of melodic counterpoint. In these brief vignettes, the composer’s music does suggest definite scenes, characters, moods, and emotions, even to a story not originally envisioned. The plot as devised by Diaghilev and choreographed by Nijinska took off from Shakespeare in a most original and surprising way, and the dance is presented as a ballet within a ballet.
Scene: orginally onstage with the Ballets Russes.
- In a contemporary studio, the dancers are a bit late in arriving. The music supports their last-minute getting ready for a rehearsal.
- The women together practice a gavotte.
- Faster, stronger music accompanies the men.
- A drolly orchestrated siciliana suggests a satire on the professor teaching.
- A sonatina evokes the mood of the lovers being separated.
- The stage is prepared for the ballet-within-a-ballet.
- A formal sinfonia is the backdrop for Romeo and Juliet meeting at a ball.
- The nurse and a servant appear, to jaunty music.
- Toccata—this is a duel indeed.
- Musette for the balcony scene is appropriately lyrical and quiet, with a drone harmony that helps project calmness.
- Burlesca, busy music for Paris searching for Juliet.
- Adagietto, with respectfully reverent music, perhaps a suggestion of a church, for Juliet is dying.
- Surprisingly cheerful music jars us back to “reality.” For the finale, the onstage “spectators” applaud, but when the curtain rises, the two star dancers are not there. The “audience” searches for them, but the lovers are eloping by aeroplane, with Romeo now wearing a leather jacket!
After its Monte Carlo premiere, Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet had a London performance that went just fine. But its presentation in Paris suffered from a political riot on the part of the audience that necessitated bringing in the police and then restarting the entire performance. Subsequently, in 1932, for a Camargo Society program in London, Antony Tudor choreographed Lambert’s music under its original title, Adam and Eve, with the Bible story now given a humorous twist, and with the composer providing some additional music.
Lambert’s other ballet work
Bronislava Nijinska, meanwhile, had commissioned a second ballet from Lambert. Pomona was premiered in 1927 by the Company of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. The score was given fresh choreography by Frederick Ashton in 1930 for the very first performances by the Camargo Society in London.
This work is lovely just to listen to! And if dancers and musicians are mindful of the forms of court dances inherited from the Renaissance, today’s listeners will recognize corante, menuet, passacaglia, rigadoon, and siciliana among the section titles. There is also a “pastorale” and a final march. The story of Pomona involved nymphs, the goddess of fruits, and the ups and downs of love with a god named Vertumrus. Lambert’s biographer commented that “Pomona pervades an aura of classic beauty.” Lambert used older forms to help structure rhythm and overall feeling. The composer understood music from the past (having spent years studying scores from the library, starting when he was incapacitated and unable to attend school). But he was able to inject his distinctive musical thoughts into older dance traditions.
Lambert was also deeply aware of what other musicians around him were doing—as witnessed by his book Music Ho! published in 1934. The book still makes for interesting reading because of the composer’s personal perceptions and opinions about other composers including Debussy, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Satie, Schoenberg, Milhaud—and the one he considered the greatest, Sibelius. The book is full of both admiring remarks and scathing criticisms about music in post-World War I Europe—written with all the burning emotion of youth plus all the perceptive observations of the knowledgeable musician that Lambert had already had become.
Perhaps precisely because of his extensive involvement with ballet in England, Constant Lambert’s name is not widely known among people elsewhere today. Yet writing in The New York Times of May 2, 1999, the critic Terry Teachout commented: “If life were fair, Constant Lambert would be known as the English Leonard Bernstein,” and went on to report that “as a ballet conductor, Lambert was by all accounts unrivalled.”
Underscoring Lambert’s unusual abilities as a conductor for ballet, Lincoln Kirstein wrote that:
He is a genius for tempi; absolutely on the note in every variation; no boring bits; and he supports the dancers on the huge stage by giving them assurance with his authority. He whipped people up into applause, purely by sound; when nothing was really happening from a dancer he seduced everyone into imagining that she was divine. Anyway, he got an ovation; many people knew what he had done.
As a composer, early on Lambert was quite smitten by hearing the jazz singer Florence Mills, and some listeners felt that he incorporated some techniques of the jazz genre into his music very effectively, making it such a part of his own style that one does not find it derivative but exciting in a unique way. His most popular concert piece was The Rio Grande, a 1927 setting of a text by Sacheverell Sitwell, for chorus, alto solo, piano, brass, percussion, and strings. This was performed in many places over the course of years, and in 1931 Frederick Ashton choreographed it, then under the name A Day in a Southern Port. The theatrical work was presented by the Camargo Society, with 16-year old Margot Fonteyn dancing the role of a Creole girl in some performances. In those more conservative times, the erotically suggestive subject matter was criticized in the press. But The Rio Grande is a wonderful piece to listen to now.
The river of the title was not the one in America’s southwest, nor yet Brazil’s Amazon, but rather a poetic evocation. As Constant Lambert wrote in one program note:
The music of Rio Grande no more represents any actual scene or event than the atmospheric poem which inspired it. It is an imaginary picture that it conjures up, a picture of the gay life of a riverside town which may be in either South or North America, as the listener chooses to fancy. The poem is perhaps more definitely Spanish than the music which derives more from negro sources. The composer was very impressed by the coloured revues Dover Street to Dixie and Blackbirds that will always be remembered for the superbly moving singing of Florence Mills (to whose memory he has written an Elegiac Blues). The colour and rhythm of the singing was an absolute revelation of the possibilities of choral writing and thus Rio Grande is the first example of a serious and perfectly natural use of jazz techniques in a choral work.
Though it may not sound “jazzy” to our ears now, The Rio Grande provoked commentary about whether jazz techniques were appropriate in concert music. Perhaps this is one thing that sparked such vehement comment in Constant Lambert’s book Music Ho! in which he discussed nationalism vs internationalism in musical style—including the question of whether “jazz” could be created and performed in England, and not just in New York’s Harlem.
In his limited time available for composing, Lambert wrote two more ballets. Some observers considered Horoscope his best. It’s too bad that the orchestral parts, scenery, and costumes were lost forever when his ballet company went on a tour to Holland just before the Nazis attacked. The performers including Lambert were lucky to escape back to England with their lives. However, an orchestral suite was able to be put together, and that is available on CD now.
A more personal tragedy for the composer was the fact that despite his apparently having many diabetic seizures during his adult life, both he and the people around him never recognized what was happening as such. And so by 1951, Constant Lambert was very ill indeed and enlisted several colleagues to help him finish the orchestration for his final ballet, Tiresius. It was premiered at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Lambert was able to conduct six performances in July, and he died on August 21st.
Tiresius is a powerful ballet, with a story based on ancient myth. In its premiere production, Margot Fonteyn had a leading role, and many people in the company felt that the love portions of the music seemed rather like the composer’s last tribute to the dancer who formerly had been his lover as well as muse. Some found the story exceptionally grim and unacceptable. However, we must remember that the tragic myths of the Greeks and Romans were not timid!
Lambert’s second wife Isabel designed the sets, based on her drawings of Minoan artifacts that she had seen in London’s museums. The story very briefly has to do with a kind of bet that the chief god Jupiter makes with his wife Juno, whether life and love were happier for a man or a woman. Enter a couple of snakes, and a man named Tiresius who strikes one of the snakes, thereby turning himself into a woman. Later retransformed, the gods ask him, “Well?” What was the answer to their question? “For the woman!” This makes Juno so angry (for she had bet the answer would be male) that she blinds Tiresius. As some compensation, Jupiter bestows upon Tiresius the power of prophecy as he proceeds through the world as an old man with his thumping stick.
Several aspects make Constant Lambert’s music for Tiresius interesting even just for listening. For openers, he did not use violins or violas in the orchestration. So instead of the sweet sounds that we have become accustomed to for romantic scenes (as in Pomona or Romeo and Juliet, for instance), the cellos provide a darker but still beautiful timbre. Other than that, the solo piano is used most imaginatively, sometimes entirely to provide rhythmic chords, sometimes with an unaccompanied solo melody, sometimes with such a melody doubled at a lower octave. Then there is a wide variety of percussion, including a loud gong. And whether intentional or not, the oboe and flute melodic lines at times bring to mind the proverbial snake charmer. The other winds and the brass are employed most effectively, and the various entrances mark little sections and phrases so clearly that dancers probably never had any problem in knowing where they were supposed to be in relation to the music.
Among the tributes to Constant Lambert after his death, there were many that tried to express the extent of his deep understanding and connection to the art of theatrical dancers. Among them, Robert Irving (who as a young man had been a student in Constant Lambert’s conducting class, and who followed him as music director of both Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet, then later for New York City Ballet). In a gala publication for Sadler’s Wells Ballet, Irving wrote:
Apart from Lambert’s expert musicianship, which contained that vital element of adventurousness and interest in ‘lost’ composers, he possessed that rare combination of creative force and a nimble and practical intelligence which was ideal for the planning of a bold and varied musical policy. As a conductor, apart from his love of the ballet, he had that essential sense of movement, although he himself was physically handicapped by a severe illness as a child.
This sense of movement was conveyed in his beat, which seemed to include within itself the inner components of the rhythm, while never losing sight of the dramatic significance of the music, as it affected the action of the ballet.
And reflecting upon all the years of collaboration with Constant Lambert, Dame Ninette de Valois told the BBC in 1965:
He really was the music foundation of the English Ballet. He was the one to put us on the right path in the very beginning, taste and style and approach, and our roots lie in the work that Constant Lambert did for us in the first twenty years of our life.
He was terrifically rhythmical. Very strict. He disciplined the company very well, but he had a very open mind…as to the sort of music he had to give the dancer, and the dancer knew that in her own right she would always get as much assistance as possible.
Loved by every orchestra player in London, he became a symbol of security when he entered the pit. As for the dancers, Constant in charge meant to them that all was well with the world; as director I would sink back with a sigh of relief at the sight of the alert back and the raised arm—the signal for the onslaught of the surest of sure beats.
Certainly high praise for a musician who had developed into such a major presence in the development and performance of British ballet…and it all started with Constant Lambert’s youthful score for Romeo and Juliet!
That said, it’s time to move on to another Romeo and Juliet. Post-dating Lambert’s score, Prokofiev’s has dominated the ballet scene for many decades.
notes and explorations:
Clip of Constant Lambert conducting London Philharmonic Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWY7GSABxRQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueAls3oHFWg Barry Wordsworth conducts the Musette from Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet. BBC Concert Orchestra.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djd99toc0Zo The Adagietto.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkxDZ7YulNU The Sinfonia.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1hqWVLtUZk The Toccata.
Unfortunately, there are no DVDs available for Lambert’s original ballets. However, to see a ballet with music arranged by him, one can currently view an Opus Arte DVD of Frederick Ashton’s delightful work Les Patineurs, with the Royal Ballet’s stellar cast leading us to see them as imaginary and daring ice-skaters. The music was based on two 19th century operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer, Le Prophète and L’Étoile du Nord.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1EQF_FLphI Recording only, excerpt from Horoscope. One listener commented: “One of the most incredible pieces of music I have ever experienced!” (The Bacchanale, Waltz, Pas de Deux, and Invocation sections.) Worthwhile to read the notes mounted here. Barry Wordsworth and BBC Concert Orchestra.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auVuSDYEMs8 Three pieces from Horoscope conducted by Lambert himself.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeNZOy2Miq8 A 1949 recording with Constant Lambert conducting his Rio Grande.
A beautiful recording of Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet, with John Lanchbery conducting the State Orchestra of Victoria, Australia, was issued in 2000 by Chandos. Lanchbery, like Lambert before him, was an outstanding conductor/arranger/composer for Ashton and the Royal Ballet, as well as going on to conduct American Ballet Theatre in New York. Pomona is on the same CD.
Another excellent CD of Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet was made by the English Northern Philhamonia in 2004 conducted by David Lloyd-Jones and released under the Hyperion label. (Also contains Lambert’s Piano Concerto, The Bird Actors, Prize Fight, and Elegiac Blues.) Hyperion also has issued a CD by The Nash Ensemble with Lambert’s Concerto for Piano and Nine Players, Eight Poems of Li-Po, Sonata for Piano, and Mr. Bear Squash-you-all-flat . On another CD of the same label Lloyd-Jones leads orchestral renditions of Pomona and Lambert’s last ballet score, Tiresias. In 1982 John D. Abbott edited Tiresius, made a piano reduction and the full score that was used for the recording.
To hear the art of Constant Lambert as a conductor of his own works you can listen to a remastering issued in 1992 by EMI, which includes some music from the ballet Horoscope and The Rio Grande in a riveting performance, plus some music by other composers.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Lopokova For brief information about Lydia Lopokova, Russian-born ballerina who married economist John Meynard Keynes.
Lambert’s book: Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline (London: Hogarth Press edition, 1985 edition of work first published in 1934).
Lambert’s works published in his lifetime are now either no longer available or very expensive second-hand. (Sheet music for one brief piano piece is currently listed online for over $1,000.) Yet if you search music library collections you may find either orchestral scores or piano four-hand arrangements by the composer. Some scores and parts of a few works may still be available for rental for performance purposes.
For further information about this composer, there is an exceptional and detailed biography: Stephen Lloyd, Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande (New York: Boydell Press, 2014). The Guardian said “This magisterial book is the best possible case for a Lambert revival.” Agreed, except one should first listen to his music on recordings. Before one even begins reading the biography proper, the information provided in the back matter is overwhelming: not only listing Lambert’s compositions and arrangements, but also listing his conducting for both ballet and instrumental concerts; extensive documentation of his 53 recording sessions, talks over BBC radio, and journalistic articles. There is a chapter devoted to Romeo and Juliet that might be of particular interest to those curious about Lambert’s altercation with Diaghilev and the audience disruption of the Paris performance by political factions. There is also another substantial section about the composition and production of Pomona, and there are synopsis scenarios for all his ballets.
While the biography focuses on Lambert’s fully-packed career and creative works, yet it includes here and there some welcome anecdotes that make the composer come alive as a person. One of my favorites is the story Constant Lambert’s family would tell about how at a young age he already liked to conduct: he would stand in front of the ocean and conduct the waves! Stephen Lloyd also touches upon Lambert’s personal and professional relationship with Margot Fonteyn, going so far as to call her “the central figure in Constant’s life.” She, of course, became the star of England’s ballet for years and years. The book includes a stunning photograph of Fonteyn in her role in Tireseas, Lambert’s last ballet.
The quote from Robert Irving is taken from Lloyd’s book p. 417, which in turn was drawn from Gala performance: A Record of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet over Twenty-Five Years, ed. Arnold Haskell, Mark Bonham Carter and Michael Wood (London: Collins, 1955).
The quotations from Dame Ninette Valois are also taken from Stephen Lloyd’s book, pp.175-76, in turn quoted from BBC and from her book Come Dance With Me.
An earlier and shorter biography is by Richard Shead, Constant Lambert (London: Simon Publications, 1973). With an introductory memoir by the novelist Anthony Powell, who knew the composer personally. This biographer tells a warm and admiring story, with quotations from many sources including letters to and from Lambert and reviews. The appendix includes a listing of the music that Lambert featured on his BBC programs. A nice volume to introduce yourself to this outstanding musician; easily read.
The quotation from Lincoln Kirstein appears in Richard Shead’s book, p. 159.
Whereas Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet was structured as a series of distinct musical vignettes for dramatic scenes, the 1935 score by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) progresses pretty much non-stop. The composer used “leitmotifs” (as Adolphe Adam had for Giselle long before), associating certain melodies with specific characters and situations. But as the story develops, music which might originally seem innocent or romantic, for example, is changed to sound tragic—though still recognizable. The total effect is quite dramatic, especially when the choreography also is recalling exact lifts and other partnering seen in a differing earlier context.
“This ballet was conceived in paradise,” said Princeton Professor Simon Morrison, as quoted by Joshua Barone in The New York Times. However, for the composer, the years during which he worked on Romeo and Juliet were in reality anything but paradise. Unbelievably, in its original intended form before the ballet’s premiere in the Soviet Union, there was supposed to be a Victory Day parade imposed in the middle of the plot, and there were to be show-off folk dances inserted right after Juliet takes the poison. Even more of a departure from Shakespeare, the original scenario that Prokofiev wanted called for Friar Laurence to stop Romeo from stabbing himself; for Juliet to breathe; and for the lovers to dance away joyfully.
Along the years to the premiere, quite a few Russian people unfortunately really died by execution or were taken away—including the theatrical director who had commissioned Romeo and Juliet, the scenarist, and the Central Committee member who had approved the happy ending. By 1938 the composer’s passport had been confiscated so that he could never again leave Stalin’s Soviet Union, and in 1948, his first wife Lina was arrested, subjected to six months of torture and interrogation in jail, then sentenced to 20 years of labor in the Gulag. (She was finally allowed to emigrate in 1974.) All this: hardly “paradise,” as described so chillingly by Simon Morrison in his book The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years.
Prevented initially by bureaucrats from having his ballet mounted, the composer devised two orchestral suites drawn from his score, and soon thereafter the plot of the ballet returned to be more faithful to Shakespeare’s tragedy. However, the premiere in the Soviet Union was not the first performance. Among the less dire reasons causing the delay in the first place was that the Russian dancers found the music undanceable, and the musicians in the orchestra found the music unplayable! So the premiere took place in 1938 in Czechoslovakia, choreographed by Vána Psota (who had been with the Ballets Russes). In 1940 the Kirov Ballet finally presented its production, choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky and starring Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev. And yes, Romeo and Juliet both died onstage.
As time has gone on, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has become a favorite score among both performers and audiences, and there have been many choreographic versions. An outstanding favorite so far is the one that Sir Kenneth MacMillan mounted first on the Royal Ballet in 1965. Management decreed that the opening performances star the then internationally sensational duo Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Subsequent live performances starred the very dancers on whom MacMillan had created his vision, namely Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. A later filmed performance recommended now is a heart-breakingly beautiful one captured on DVD featuring Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling and the Royal Ballet. MacMillan’s choreography is stunning and the dancers’ performances seem both technically brilliant and emotionally tugging at the heart strings (especially in the way the passionate pas-de-deux early in the ballet becomes transformed at the end, with Romeo embracing the dead Juliet in similar lifts, now so tragic).
* * *
A listing of all the other versions of Prokofiev’s score mounted would run many pages and include an odd range of overall aspects. In 2017, for instance, the Joffrey Ballet presented Krzysztof Pastor’s choreography set first during Mussolini’s dictatorship, progressing to the 1950s, and ending in the 1990s. In 2008 Mark Morris had his company dance to the happier original libretto and score; and in 1977, Rudolf Nureyev had staged a version that intruded a terrifying personification of Death. More classical approaches include British choreographer Frederick Ashton’s version, originally set on the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 and kept in their repertoire for ten years. Finally, John Cranko’s version (first staged at La Scala in Italy in 1958), found enthusiastic audiences in many countries, apparently especially because of its energetic crowd scenes and exciting swordfights.
Among the multitudes of other theatrical versions prompted around the globe by Shakespeare’s original play, next to be considered will be a Broadway musical plus its film spin-off set in America of the mid-twentieth century, and a recent rock musical. Romeos expected not only to dance, but also to sing.
notes and explorations:
Joshua Barone’s article appeared in The New York Times January 23, 2018.
BOLSHOI OPENING HAILED BY CROWD
Glittering Audience Cheers ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at ‘Met’
That was the headline for a front-page article in The New York Times of April 17, 1959 about the performance choreographed by Leonid Lavrosky and conducted by Yuri Faier. Toward the bottom of the page, but still quite noteworthy. The leading headline at the top of the page was about the visit from Fidel Castro.
However, because of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the visit of the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow was regarded as not only an artistic “first” but also an event of political importance. After reporting the thunderous applause for the performance (especially for Galina Ulanova as Juliet and Yuri Zhdanov as Romeo), The Times continued a full column by naming other names: many famous and notable people in the audience. List didn’t include my father and me—but we were there! And though I was only 19 and did not realize it at the time, the occasion was considered historic. The Times again:
Seldom has such an international atmosphere of glamour and excitement been stirred in New York in many years….The opening was about as unproletarian an affair as can be imagined, with seats selling for as high as $50 and with virtually everybody in the auditorium dressed in his best bib and tucker.
I’m not sure what bib and tucker were, but I do remember wearing my very best green velvet dress! Also returning to college and playing an LP disc over and over to try and recall what scenes happened to what music. Years later, I now recognize the source of my confusion: not my memory, but precisely the way (as noted in the essay above) Prokofiev had reworked certain themes for different dramatic purposes. And just now discovering dance critic John Martin’s review from that long ago staging at the old Metropolitan Opera House, it seems fascinating that he wrote:
To call the work a ballet is perhaps to evoke the wrong image, for it is in no way like what we are accustomed to in this part of the world under that title. It is rather a great, teaming dramatic pageant, overflowing with vitality, with choreographic invention, with miming, with spectacle, and emotion.
…In the orchestra pit Yuri Faier and a first-rate orchestra made the Prokofieff score sound for all it is worth.
Altogether, an evening nobody who was present at is likely to forget. The term “ballet” is likely to take on new meaning in these parts.
Prokofiev arranged Ten Pieces from the ballet Romeo and Juliet for piano; 2017 edition from Compozitor of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Also available their 2014 piano reduction, arranged by L. Atovmyan. According to Matthew Naughtin’s 2014 guide Ballet Music, orchestral material is available from both G. Schirmer and Boosey & Hawkes.
The suggested DVD with Ferri and Eagleton was filmed in 1984 and is available on the Kultur label. A 2017 production of MacMillan’s version of Romeo and Juliet, filmed at La Scala and starring Robert Bolle and Misty Copeland, is also available on DVD or streaming. The 2003 La Scala performance on DVD featured Angel Corella partnering Alessandra Ferri. Also recommended is the Royal Ballet staging of MacMillan’s choreography starring Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo, on Decca DVD. The conductor Boris Gruzin leads a particularly beautiful orchestral performance throughout. Yet another fine performance by the Royal Ballet was filmed in 2012 starring Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli, with Barry Wordsworth conducting.
A DVD of the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the lead roles is available on Kultur. John Lanchbery conducted.
In 2020 PBS aired an abridged adaptation on Great Performances produced by the “Ballet Boyz” Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, with Royal Ballet dancers but filmed in Hungary. Nunn and Trevitt explained that they were trying to reach a “cinema, non-dance audience” and purposefully chose to favor close-ups over full dancers.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHCX8Yr4AJc John Neumeier’s version for Royal Danish Ballet, 1987 with Ib Andersen and Mette-Ida Kirk.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hM0B70F1YM Nureyev’s staging for Paris Opera Ballet. Monique Loufières as Juliet; Manuel Legris, Romeo. Especially beautiful ball dance. This is still available on DVD, TDK label. A companion DVD highly recommended is also on TDK, Dancer’s Dream documentary of Nureyev’s staging, with Elisabeth Maurin and Manuel Legris shown being prepared for their roles by Patricia Ruanne and Frederic Jahn. Vello Pähn conducted.
The Royal Ballet’s choreographer:
Scottish-born Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992) began his professional career as a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and by 1949 started creating his own choreography. His first full-length ballet was Romeo and Juliet. From 1970 to 1979 he was artistic director of the Royal Ballet. In 1984 he became associate director of American Ballet Theatre, while continuing to be principal choreographer with the Royal Ballet.
For an account of how the choreographer worked with Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable to create his Romeo and Juliet, see Jann Parry, Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), pp. 274-97. Included is the sad tale of how impresario Sol Hurok virtually dictated to the management of the Royal Ballet that if they wanted to tour the U.S., the London premiere of MacMillan’s new ballet would have to feature Nureyev and Fonteyn rather than the dancers who originated the roles. Reporting the aftermath (p. 295), Parry wrote:
Seymour and Gable were acclaimed by many as the ideal pairing, which went some way to alleviate the initial blow to their self-esteem. “If ever a pair of dancers made dance be the natural servant of drama, these two have done so in this work: dance just happens to be the language in which they tell their story,” wrote James Kennedy in The Guardian. They overshadowed the casts that followed, though they too received enthusiastic reviews and had their own following of fans.
Today only a few of MacMillan’s ballets are available on DVDs—including not only Romeo and Juliet, but also the full-length ballets Mayerling, Manon, and Prince of the Pagodas. Also recommended is the Royal Ballet DVD with Elite Syncopations and Concerto (and his last creation, The Judas Tree, a very violent story not recommended for younger viewers).
https://www.kennethmacmillan.com/best-friends Website mounted by the estate, with excellent brief biography, information about each of his ballets, a few film clips, memoirs by dance colleagues, and an image of the fine oil portrait that Deborah MacMillan painted of her husband. Highly recommended.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/sep/20/different-drummer-kenneth-macmillan Jann Parry’s monumental biography, Different Drummer as reviewed by Luke Jennings in The Guardian.
A sympathetic and informative documentary, Out of Line, featuring interviews with Kenneth MacMillan as well as with his wife and colleagues, was produced by Derek Bailey, available on Kultur DVD along with The Prince of the Pagodas. Regarding musical components, the choreographer commented that he wanted the emotion of music to move him; he didn’t care about the “mathematics of how it is made.” Highly recommended.
In recognition of his creative work, MacMillan was knighted by the Queen! But among the challenges that he had to deal with were the rather surprising intrusions that board members made into artistic decisions about his musical choices. For instance, because of the oppostion of two Catholic board members, the Royal Ballet would not allow MacMillan to set the ethereal Requiem by Gabriel Fauré. Similarly with Mahler’s Song of the Earth. London’s initial loss; the Stuttgart Ballet mounted both, to great acclaim (and the Royal Ballet later relented and acquired both after they were hailed as masterpieces).
There was also a brick wall with the composer Benjamin Britten, who would not allow any cuts to his score The Prince of the Pagodas. After the composer’s death, arrangements were able to be made with his estate, and even then the managers dictated what cuts could or could not be made. There is a DVD available on Kultur performed by the Royal Ballet and starring Darcey Bussell, Jonathan Cope, and Simon Rice, conducted by Ashley Lawrence, with elaborate costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis.
A different approach to using existing music (then in public domain) involved the collaboration between MacMillan and his arranger John Lanchbery, who set extracts from some 30 pieces by the 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt as the musical component for Mayerling premiered in 1978. The resulting score flows so continously that it seems tailor-made for the movement. The scenario for this dramatic ballet was written by Gillian Freeman based on true history of the Hapsburg Prince Rudolf. The Royal Ballet DVD on Opus Arte stars Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb, and was conducted by Koen Kessels.
Also recommended is the documentary film MacMillan’s Mayerling directed and produced by Derek Bailey in 1978. It provides historical background and explanations of the plot for this tragic dramatic ballet. Kenneth MacMillan fixed his choreography on stars Lynn Seymour (who importantly had been his original Juliet) and David Wall. The male role is extraordinary, requiring partnering many ballerinas and being onstage during a great deal of the ballet with both demanding acting and dancing. Part one.
Part two with clips from initial performances including the ballroom waltz.
Part three includes John Lanchbery talking about his preparation of the musical score from pieces by Franz Liszt, and offering examples on the piano.
Continues rehearsal with Anthony Twiner on piano. MacMillan and his dancers speak about working together in creating Mayerling. Lanchbery also talks about doing some musical collaboration long-distance, and his indications about where MacMillan could easily cut the music if desired. In addition the dance notator explains the process of documenting the choreography on paper. Clips from the premiere performance, including John Lanchbery taking bow as conductor as well as musical arranger. Concludes with information about what happened to surviving members of Hapsburg court.
Focusing further on musical concerns, it is notable that most of MacMillan’s ballets were set to pre-existing concert works (also beginning with recorded music by the jazz artist Stan Kenton). A few of his other ballets used music from the European past: Wagner, Mahler, Massenet, Verdi, Bach, and of course Tchaikovsky. In her book Parry includes a handy list of his works (pp. 708-20), indicating many set to scores by modern composers—including Stravinsky, Milhaud, Mompou, Britten, Bartók, Prokofiev, Ravel, Barber, Fauré. Poulenc, Martinu, Ibert, Weill, Martin, Schoenberg, Webern, and Shostakovitch. Only a few commissioned scores: from Mátyás Seiber for The Invitation; from Peter Tranchell for Images of Love; from Andrzel Panufnik for Miss Julie; from Richard Rodney Bennett for Isadora; and from Brian Elias for The Judas Tree.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t94Z679BErY Teaser about three ballets by Kenneth MacMillan performed by the Royal Ballet: Concerto, Elite Syncopations, The Judas Tree. On Opus Arte 2010 DVD the entire program. Elite Syncopations (1974) is a delightful ballet, with decorated costumes designed by Ian Spurling. The music is performed by an instrumental ensemble onstage and also costumed, conducted by Robert Clark, to ragtime pieces composed originally for piano, by American composers Scott Joplin, Scott Hayden, James Scott, Joseph Lamb, Max Morath, Paul Pratt, Donald Ashwander, and Robert Hampton.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSGCoVXYtJs Darcey Bussell introduces the section danced to Scott Joplin’s Bethena Waltz.
The two panelist programs described below are worth watching online for a sense of how dancers felt when performing the dances of this choreographer who changed ballet world-wide considerably.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hf_0lXz85B0 This 2017 program celebrating works by Kenneth MacMillan. Introduction by his biographer; panel of outstanding former dancers; rehearsal of beautiful pas de deux from Concerto (1966, to lyrical music of Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2); ending with horrendous contrast of a confrontational then violent pas de deux from The Judas Tree (his last work, with new somber score by Brian Elias).
The panelists (Monica Mason, Darcey Bussell, Donald MacLeary, Alessandra Ferri, and Leanne Benjamin) were all enthusiastic about MacMillan’s work, nevertheless were realistic about the controversial psychological dramas, what Monica Mason called “piercingly emotional subjects.” These included concentration camps, war, rape, murder, betrayal, and plain loneliness. But Mason also noted the “fabulous music” used by MacMillan, and his sense of humor.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HcBmJd7F3M Second program at Royal Opera House celebrating legacy of Kenneth MacMillan, with dancers from the Royal, Northern, and Scottish ballets.
Summing up the long-term reception of MacMillan’s works, in connection with changing casts, his biographer Jann Parry wrote (p. 707):
Once hooked by his ballets, dance-goers never tire of seeing them again to find out what a performer makes of them, just as theater-goers return to productions of classic plays. And for the Royal Ballet, his works have become classics of its repertoire.
For a dismaying report about the composer’s life upon his return to the Soviet Union after some years in both the United States and Paris, see Simon Morrison, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). It is an account that everyone interested in the arts should consider a cautionary tale in relation to authoritarian dictates. Professor Morrison had access to information about Prokofiev that was previously not available. In regard to Romeo and Juliet, suggested reading: pp. 32-40; 106-110; 258-70; 395-402 (the original scenario, in English).
https://www.sanfranciscoballetorchestra.org/tag/conductor/ This is a brief commentary by Martin West, conductor of San Francisco Ballet, concerning the size of the orchestra needed for Romeo and Juliet, and about the leitmotifs.
In approaching Prokofiev’s compositions, it is pertinent to know some basic facts (all drawn from Simon Morrison’s book). After graduating from St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1918, the young composer went abroad, spending two years in the United States and then moving to Paris. The musical committees in the Soviet Union for quite a few years dangled before Prokofiev many promises to entice him to return: recognition, privileges, income, performances, the chance to do film scores, good housing, a secure living so he would no longer have to tour and live out of suitcases. And he would be “allowed” to travel once a year to give concerts abroad and earn additional fees.
The composer’s wife Lina was very nervous about such a move, but the composer seemed less realistic about the dire political realities of life in the Soviet Union and succumbed to the lures. Prokofiev and his family (wife and two young boys) moved in 1936. Actually, before the permanent shift, they spent summer of 1935 in a country setting, and that is where Prokofiev began Romeo and Juliet. At one point, the composer commented that he was not involved in politics and only wanted to compose in peace. But as his life and work unfolded, neither of those statements could hold up. The Soviet bureaucracy made not only managerial decisions about commissions and performances; they also dictated what the composer should write, even down to how the music was orchestrated and how certain measures within a work should be revised. Late in his life, there was an official “Resolution” condemning certain leading composers for their “Formalism” and other alleged bad things—and Prokofiev’s works were not allowed to be performed; he was to be given no more commissions. Then of course there were the years when all of Europe was so devastated by World War II. Composers even had to be evacuated from Moscow.
Nevertheless, in the Soviet Union, Prokofiev was prolific as a composer. For his early admired compositions, he was awarded several Stalin medals, and was honored by being named “The People’s Artist.” He wrote several ballets, an opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the film score for Anna Karenina, symphonies, concertos, piano pieces for children and adults, and choral works—including ones specifically commissioned to glorify Communism and Stalin. For something truly startling, read pp. 361-62 outline for Prokofiev and his collaborator’s proposed libretto for an oratorio about the United States dropping 20 atomic bombs on the Soviet Union and killing life. However, according to the libretto, happiness comes back due to the efforts of Communist workers everywhere because “Moscow stands for peace.” Morrison reports: “Fadeyev advised Prokofiev against setting this horrific text, and the enfeebled composer agreed.”
Among his other works, Prokofiev’s earlier score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky continues to be much admired for the scene with the battle on the ice. Peter and the Wolf is a favorite with children around the world. His concert works continue to be performed in the West.
Prokofiev’s second best-known ballet score is Cinderella. According to Simon Morrison, the composer regarded his heroine not as a French princess, but with much darker hues. (See pp. 258-70 for many details.) Morrison observes, p. 267: “Socialist aesthetics prohibited the composer from portraying the decadent, bourgeois court as a place of salvation.” Despite this aspect, Cinderella is still a most enjoyable fairy tale as mounted on the Royal Ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton, with himself and Robert Helpmann uproariously portraying the ugly sisters, and Antoinette Sibley as Cinderella en pointe dancing first with a broom and later with the prince, portrayed by Anthony Dowell. The fairy godmother was danced by Georgina Parkinson, and the jester by Alexander Grant. Available on a Kultur DVD, filmed in 1969. There are other versions, but Ashton’s is a particular delight.
A splendid performance of David Bintley’s Cinderella, by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, can be seen on a Kultur DVD, and there are a number of short clips on You Tube. The large Royal Birmingham Sinfonia, conducted by Koen Kessels, provides a magnificent musical performance of Prokofiev’s score, ranging from dark and brooding to gentle and lyrical, to all-out emotion for courtly scenes. The unusual scenery, lighting, and costuming also make this a special delight for family viewing. Lead roles are by Elisha Willis and Iain Mackay.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ub6ie31InjQ This offers very brief clips from Ben Stevenson’s version of Cinderella, performed by Queensland Ballet.
The third Prokofiev ballet recommended that everybody see is The Prodigal Son, the last score that the composer Prokofiev did for Diaghilev, choreographed in 1929 by George Balanchine. On Nonesuch DVD, Choreography by George Balanchine, with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the title role and members of New York City Ballet. From Dance in America series.
A most interesting discussion of his dancing the role of Prodigal Son is Edward Villella on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUH6TB3R3VA in a 2015 interview with Robert Greskovic, as part of the Balanchine Foundation archives. During his years with New York City Ballet, Villella had been the only dancer who performed this role, and it is astonishing to hear his account of how Balanchine spent only an hour and a quarter teaching it to him!
Edward Villella also described his extensive preparations for portraying this dance role in his memoir Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). See pp. 79-84. He felt that this was the role that he was associated with in the public mind more than any other.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJksm5XEDog An unusual program. Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum featuring Peter Boal discussing how choreographer Jerome Robbins coached him in male solos. Boal was formerly principal dancer with New York City Ballet, afterwards and continuing, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. With three of his company dancers: James Moore, Lucien Postlewaite, and Dylan Wald; accompanied by Christine Siemens, pianist/vocal soloist. Main focus is on two ballets to Prokofiev scores: Prodigal Son (choreographed by Balanchine; a role which Jerome Robbins had been the first to perform with New York City Ballet); and Opus 19, The Dreamer, to Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D (choreographed by Robbins).
For audience members who enjoyed seeing Peter Boal perform with New York City Ballet, as well as for patrons of the Pacific Northwest Ballet (where he has been artistic director since 2005) his memoir Illusions of Camelot makes for especially interesting reading. It is not a detailed chronicle of a professional career, but rather offers emotional glimpses of his upbringing in New York’s Westchester County within a dysfunctional family headed by an alcoholic father. Included are unvarnished recollections of cruelties that childhood companions can inflict on one another even in a privileged community, as well as a surprising look at what it was like to be only fourteen years old and start living on your own in Manhattan in order to be trained at the School of American Ballet. Moving on, there is an excruciating chapter about watching a loved one succumb to AIDS and much later another chapter about his hospital visit with the fading George Balanchine (who had chosen the dancer initially as an apprentice. Boal became a corps member in 1983, then was named principal in 1989. Additionally from 1997 to 2005 he was on the faculty of the School of American Ballet.)
However, there are more cheerful sections in which Boal shares some of his dance-related experiences—amusingly describing a youthful class in ballroom styles, going on to recall his first onstage appearances in the party scene of Nutcracker as well as a later typical day for corps members of New York City Ballet. Then there was important coaching by Jerome Robbins when Boal was entrusted with leading roles in both the Prodigal Son and Opus 19/The Dreamer.
Touching upon the enormous influence of being in men’s classes taught by Stanley Williams (once a week from age 12, six times a week at age 15) Boal wrote about the unusual atmosphere and music. [kindle edition online at 2686]:
The poor pianists would fall by the wayside in droves as Stanley would guide them into submission with the weakest framework of musical structure. The Russians would rebel with flowery doses of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff. Stanley would quietly thank them, and off they’d go, never to return.
What so few understood was his desire for dancers’ limbs to define music and not keys or pedals on the piano. Notoriously pianists were guided to play only the counts of one and four, leaving the dancers to round out phrases and create articulation.
The roundness, expression and intensity of music needed to live in the dancers’ bodies and not just in the ear. Overpowering music could only be followed, while two softly played chords allowed for melody, meter, and bravura to be overlaid and explored. Brilliant movement complemented, enhanced, and even conducted great music. He wanted to build from the essence, investing meaning and shape into every step. In the end, the music lived within our bodies and movement.
I recall from my own participation in several three-day workshops with pianist Lynn Stanford how he prefaced our observation of his playing for Stanley Williams with the warning that this was going to be utterly unlike the classes we had witnessed previously led by Russian ballet teachers—that the sounds would be quiet, minimally there, creating an atmosphere of calm breath and intense concentration. This was quite a contrast to the popular tunes that Lynn used to play so exuberantly, for instance, at David Howard’s professional classes at Broadway’s Steps studio.
Of the quiet style, Peter Boal observed: [kindle online at 2699]:
Stanley was somewhat of a legend as a teacher. He turned the study of ballet into zen meditation.
And about the piano accompaniment, he had this to say [kindle online at 2719]:
Lynn’s music was not only compatible with Stanley’s teaching philosophies, but also a joy to hear.
Generalizing about his feelings for daily studio classes, Boal wrote [kindle version online 2750]:
The ballet class has always been like a higher ground for me, and I believe it is for all dancers….The shared meditation and the chance to take our human form and rise to its epitome through movement and music, is a pinnacle of existence. I’m an atheist, but the ballet studio…is when I come closer to recognizing something bigger than me.
Illusions of Camelot: A Memoir was published by Beaufort Books (located in New York) on May 23, 2023. Barely mentioning the move he made to Seattle with his family, Peter Boals’ conclusion leaves us heartily wishing to see him write a sequel! For now, these very personal and touching recollections about his training and experiences leading up to his years as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet offer unusual reading for ballet fans.
For a brief cheerful update from the Seattle artistic director in the company’s En Face Magazine celebrating their 50th anniversary season, click on this brief letter:
The same playbill identifies their conductor Emil de Cou (with a quote from The New York Times) as “America’s finest ballet conductor.” And if you keep scrolling through, there is also a brief history of Pacific Northwest Ballet with mention of Peter Boal’s contributions so far—as director of both the company and their ballet school.
https://www.creativeprocess.info/music-dance/peter-boal-mia-funk A 34-minute podcast of Mia Funk interviewing Peter Boal in 2021 with reference to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s tour to Paris. In briefly describing his own introduction to ballet, Boal mentioned that he joined New York City Ballet just after Balanchine’s death, and described some of his experiences working with Jerome Robbins. Boal’s last performance with the New York company was the Robbins ballet Op. 19/The Dreamer. Speaking as an artistic director, Boal felt that it made him more objective not to be a choreographer himself, and he also commented on the value to him to continue teaching some classes every week.
For a sample of Peter Boal as master teacher during the pandemic, see the link to the World Ballet Day film in the After-Words of this website, in the section Exploring Professional Opportunities, under the subhead online classes to view.
And to read a review of the company’s first tour to New York City in six years (along with their entire 64-piece orchestra) see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/24/arts/dance/review-pacific-northwest-ballet.html As an example of the span of music the company dances to, for the program reviewed, music included work by the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt, R & B musician Allen Toussaint, and the scary score that Bernard Herrmann wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho.
Another reviewer, Lora Strum, wrote enthusiastically: “In this mixed repertory program, the Pacific Northwest Ballet explores what makes a work timeless in a dazzling variety of choreographic styles.” https://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwdance/article/Review-Pacific-Northwest-Ballet-Trades-Timeliness-For-Timelessness-at-The-Joyce-Theater-20220623
www.pnb.org For more information about Pacific Northwest Ballet, founded in 1972. Particularly noteworthy is the artistic span of the choreographers and music presented in their performances. Peter Boal has been artistic director since 2005. The company website provides information on upcoming seasons, but also about the dancers, the company school, community engagement, plus excellent study guides for teachers taking their students to performances of ballets appropriate for their ages.
https://www.pnb.org/repertory/ For list of the company’s extensive repertoire.
In his 900-page book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet, author Stephen Manes recounted the training and earlier career of Peter Boal as both principal dancer and teacher at New York City Ballet and subsequently as artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Washington. (Published by Cadwallader and Stern, 2011). Though the book is filled with often needless details, yet the author mainly wanted to document what it took for Pacific Northwest Ballet to function and bring dance works to the stage. He does not say much about the musical compositions used for repertoire, but does cover what happened backstage and before performances, with all the necessary fundraising, board meetings, auditions, casting, rehearsals, touring, and so forth involved in running a ballet company as a successful business along with a school. His focus was on the performing season of 2007-2008, but in his epilogue, Manes offered a quick overview of the challenges faced during the financial crisis of 2008, along with personnel changes including the retirement of Stewart Kershaw after twenty-five years as music director and the subsequent hiring of Emil de Cou to replace him. For mention of Prodigal Son see the index. Likewise for the extensive preparations for Romeo and Juliet as choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot. For some descriptions of the work that both orchestral and studio musicians did, see chapter 50. Particularly of interest is his reporting of what the music librarian’s work entailed, in chapter 20.
Also of particular interest is the fact that although he did briefly start his own chamber ballet company, Peter Boal did not set out to function as choreographer for Pacific Northwest Ballet, but rather offered the West Coast audiences opportunities to see fine revival productions of Balanchine and Robbins works (many in which he had formerly performed as a member of New York City Ballet). And importantly, Boal and his dancers also were presenting some outstanding works by contemporary choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, William Forsythe, Susan Stroman, Ulysses Dove, Christopher Wheeldon, Jean-Christopher Maillot, company member Kiyon Gaines, and Seattle-born Mark Morris. In connection with some of the eclectic repertoire, the music director Stewart Kershaw was concerned (as reported by the author, p. 692):
The problem…is that those “loft choreographers” are so accustomed to working with limited means that they don’t even begin to consider using a live orchestra. He worries that their reliance on small ensembles and prerecorded pieces could affect the orchestra’s quality.
Surprisingly, the author mounted several of his introductory chapters online to whet the reader’s interest in finding and finishing the whole book. The linked website provides a great deal of information about both book and author. Go to: https://wheresnowflakesdanceandswear.com/
In his book’s concluding epilogue (p. 852), Manes offered his opinion that “live music remains [ballet’s] most threatened aspect.”
But returning to the Prodigal Son, yes indeed that has been among the Balanchine ballets revived by Pacific Northwest Ballet: first staged by Richard Tanner in 2004 and subsequently by Peter Boal.
https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/dance/the-prodigal-son-returns-to-pnb/ A most informative report by Moira Macdonald about the latest Prodigal Sons in 2015: Benjamin Griffiths, James Moore, and Matthew Renko performing with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. The writer includes interesting background about Peter Boal’s experiences with this now classic ballet.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44CFZ1pz_SM One-minute teaser film of Benjamin Griffiths in the role of Prodigal Son, for which he was coached by Peter Boal.
Back in 1978, Balanchine had coached Mikhail Baryshnikov and Karin von Aroldingen in the main roles. Taped for Dance in America, with Robert Irving conducting, the DVD is now available: Choreography by Balanchine, New York City Ballet, program one. (Nonesuch label). Balanchine felt that he had at last made this dance “right.” Recalling how it was to work with Prokofiev, the choreographer declared: “He would not change anything he wrote. He was a bastard; so I had to fill the music; the big prop is my invention to fill time.” [From the DVD liner notes.]
As his years in the Soviet progressed, Prokofiev surely must have learned what it was to respond to requests for changes! Though there were apparently numerous ideological considerations—many of them with “Committees” blatantly wielding power—yet some of the requests may have been typical of what any choreographer working with a composer might ask for—especially if the music is composed entirely first.
Among the many topics that author Simon Morrison addresses in detail is the surprising fact that Prokofiev did not do all his orchestrations. Instead, in order to meet deadlines set for his commissions and performances, he would write out piano scores, explain to other musicians what he wanted, and get their help in the actual writing down of orchestral scores and parts. Regarding the orchestration of Cinderella, see Morrison, p. 265. He quotes the composer Shostakovitch as saying: “I was surprised that Prokofiev, who is such an outstanding orchestrator, had not completed the orchestration himself.” This is very much akin to what happens in the United States with Broadway shows—and that process will be highlighted in the next section.
Bernstein’s Broadway Show
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) had talents that spanned exceptional pianism, flamboyant conducting (including 1957-1969 for the New York Philharmonic), and composing symphonies and ballet scores—including Fancy Free, Facsimile, and The Dybbuk all set by Jerome Robbins plus the Mass choreographed by Alvin Ailey. For Broadway, Bernstein’s best-known scores are Candide and West Side Story, which is another transformation of the Romeo and Juliet story.
The musical West Side Story, created with choreography by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics credited to Stephen Sondheim, was inspired by Shakespeare’s plot but set in a rough neighborhood of Manhattan during the 1950s. Instead of dramatizing feuding Italian families, the musical portrayed the conflicts between two male gangs—New York toughs and Puerto Ricans. The live show had its first performances in 1957, starting in Washington D.C. and then going on to New York City, followed by tours around the country and a Hollywood film in 1961. And in 2021, Steven Spielberg directed a movie remake.
If Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet had a tortured birthing in Russia, well so did West Side Story in New York City and later on in Hollywood for the film version. Though multiple projects delayed the collaborators’ initial work and potential backers were not particularly drawn to the idea of financing a show that had two corpses onstage at the end of the first act, West Side Story over time became a much-admired award-winning production considered ground-breaking for not only its tragic and threatening story, but also for the at-times operatic score, and its dramatic jazz dancing. Excerpts from it were included in a later show, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and Leonard Bernstein’s music has gone on to have a life of its own in orchestral concerts that often feature guest singers. These songs have surely become part of the well-known “American songbook:” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” “Cool,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Somewhere.” But equally stunning are the orchestral sections that accompany the dances, the rumble fight, the gathering of the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Snapping of fingers has a memorable effect too!
Very briefly, the musical began as an idea in the mind of Jerome Robbins around 1949, with an East Side setting and contentions between Catholics and Jews. Years later, the Broadway setting depicted New York’s West Side, with a gang drawn from Puerto Rican neighborhoods opposing a gang of tough New York males. Though the neighborhoods have changed radically since then (not least because of a whole area being torn down to make way for the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts), what young male dancer of today doesn’t get intrigued by the group dance to “Cool”? And how does anybody not recognize the Latin dance to Bernstein and Sondheim’s “America” first immortalized by Chita Rivera (from the Broadway show) or Rita Moreno (from the movie)?
The music by Leonard Bernstein is magnetic for dancers and audiences alike, and there continue to be professional, community, and school productions not only around the United States, but indeed around the globe. Even though some years have passed, it is most interesting to read about a selection of productions, in Misha Berson’s book listed below: her chapter titled “Here Come the Jets: West Side Story in Production Around the World,” including accounts of performances given within jails, with criminals as the actors—and one featuring only Japanese women in all the parts.
arrangers and orchestrators
Certainly a major part of the effectiveness of West Side Story is the vibrancy of the dance arrangements and overall orchestrations, done partly with oversight by the composer himself, but with the final scores worked up by Betty Walberg (dance arranger), and the orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostel. While Leonard Bernstein, masterful conductor and composer, was quite capable of doing his own orchestrations, nevertheless traditionally with Broadway shows there are such time pressures and financial considerations that it is normal to separate and farm out the various stages of creation.
First come the book and the ideas for details in the plot. Even this may involve substantial collaboration, including input from hoped-for financial backers and producers.
Next step would likely be a lyricist writing words for the songs. Again, this might involve more than one creator. In the case of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein wrote some of the original lyrics, but after Stephen Sondheim was brought in on the project, Bernstein bowed out of taking credit.
Next thing, composers would write the music for the songs. Some songwriters—like Irving Berlin—came up with both melodies and words. For others, music might come first from a composer and then words from a lyricist, or the other way round. The composer Richard Rodgers worked in different ways with his collaborators Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein. A few—like Kurt Weil—not only wrote the melodies and accompaniments, but also did the final orchestrations.
The next step in the process of producing a musical would be for a specialist dance arranger to work in a studio with the choreographer to come up with music that fit and supported the dance sections. In the case of West Side Story, Jerome Robbins had an assistant choreographer, Peter Gennaro. Among the outstanding musical arrangers for dance segments was Betty Walberg, who worked on the dance music for West Side Story, for both the Broadway production and the later film.
The collaboration of a dance arranger would begin while the choreography was being set, and as Betty Walberg related, musical sections for the dances would usually be worked out right in the studio, where changes could be made immediately to fit the choreographer’s requests. A piano score was then written out and given to the orchestrators, who in turn would give their final scores to copyists who would extract the parts by hand for each instrument of the band or orchestra, all on a very tight time schedule. During periods of out-of-town tryouts, it became normal for some songs to be cut or changed; for the composer to be required to write something brand new; and for the orchestrators and copyists to work late through the nights so that instrumental parts for added or changed sections would be ready on time for dress rehearsals and even initial performances in front of audiences.
This process in the preparations is documented in a fascinating book: Steven Suskin’s The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations. He studied original manuscripts and provides information about West Side Story, in some cases even detailing things down to specific measures of both the songs and the dances. But he is unequivocal in stating “Orchestrations totally by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal,” though he indicates that Bernstein supervised the orchestration work.
For their orchestration work on the film version of West Side Story, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal won an Oscar. Previous praise was remarked on by Steven Suskin:
That the sounds of West Side Story and Gypsy were distinctive was immediately noticed by composers and producers. Harold Prince: “Once you heard that sound, you wanted to hear that sound again.”
And indeed audiences did hear that sound again very soon, when the two talents again worked with Stephen Sondheim, on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Finally, to quote from Irwin Kostal himself (as documented by Suskin) concerning West Side Story:
Even though Sid and I did the orchestrations, there can be no doubt that we only fulfilled Lenny’s intentions, based upon the detailed information we compiled from Lenny. He took keen delight in his own creativity and jumped for joy whenever Sid or I added a little originality of our own. He sometimes would look at one of our scores and say “Who said orchestration couldn’t be creative?”
notes and explorations:
West Side Story, the film, is available on DVD in a 50th anniversary issue. The movie, released by United Artists, was co-directed by Robert Wise. Some of the critics found the “gang” members not totally believable as presented in either their characters or some of their actions, especially not the “Tony” character. And the facts that the lead actors’ singing had to be dubbed and that Natalie Wood was not Puerto Rican were bones of contention for some viewers—including the author of the musical, Arthur Laurents, who pointed to “bogus accents, bogus dialect, bogus costumes.” But people should see it once anyway!
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/theater/west-side-story-confidential.html Interesting article by Jennifer Schuessler, 2020 about the coverage of West Side Story over the years since 1957 up until its latest revival this year by Ivo van Hove. (See review below.)
An excellent introduction to the career of Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), a 130-minute DVD, was made from the American Masters program on PBS, titled Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About (distributed by Kultur). It includes clips from many of his Broadway shows as well as from his ballets, and describes the magic of his works as well as the difficulties that many dancers had in working with this perfectionist. Unfortunately, there is no DVD for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. There is a VHS tape at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, but viewing it is restricted; one must request permission in advance. A CD set of just the music is still available.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wugWGhItaQA Clip of just the famous “Cool” dance.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3SEW63LsaM Documentary film of Leonard Bernstein conducting recording sessions of West Side Story with stellar opera stars Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras. A complete CD is still available: Deutsche Grammaphon, 1990.
For an excellent account of the creation of West Side Story, see the chapter titled “Tony Loves Maria” in Deborah Jowitt’s page-turner of a biography, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dances (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004) pp. 265-292.
For a brief account of some of the production details, see Jack Gottlieb’s 2001 write-up on the internet at https://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/9/west-side-story
For a longer investigation of West Side Story, there is an entire book by Misha Berson, theatre critic for the Seattle Times, titled West Side Story and the American Imagination. (Milwaukee: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2011). It covers the creative collaboration and production for the original Broadway show, the filming, recordings, and just about everything else you might want to know.
For more focused information about just the movie, there is a book by a Puerto-Rican college teacher of film studies. Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz, West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2013). This account is full of production details as well as the story behind why Jerome Robbins was fired before the filming was completed, and why the singing of the actress who portrayed Maria was dubbed.
Other outstanding choreography by Jerome Robbins for Broadway shows included Call Me Madam (1950), Gypsy (1959), and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). For full credits, go to Thomas Hischak, the Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
For more information about West Side Story and the composer, go to: thttps://leonardbernstein.com/works?page=3 This is the official Bernstein website, with enormous amounts of information about the artist himself, his works, upcoming events, books, over 1,000 recordings and DVDs. A website that is easy to browse through.
An excellent recent detailed biography is Humphrey Burton, Leonard Bernstein (London: Faber & Faber, 2017).
https://leonardbernstein.com/works/?category=7 For information about the Bernstein-Robbins ballets Fancy Free, Dybbuk, and Facsimile.
https://leonardbernstein.com/about/composer/bernstein-and-dance Useful section of the website, with extensive listing Bernstein’s music composed specifically for dance or later set by choreographers.
https://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/30/theater/jerome-robbins-79-is-dead-giant-of-ballet-and-broadway.html Obituary by Anna Kisselgoff’ will provide a brief idea of the flow of Robbins ballets and musicals.
https://www.nytimes.com/1990/10/09/obituaries/betty-walberg-69-a-musical-arranger-for-choreographers.htmlobituary of Betty Walberg in The New York Times.
http://archives.nypl.org/mus/20303 overview of New York Public Library for Performing Arts collection of Betty Walberg’s scores and materials.
Some information about Betty Walberg’s dance collaborations, written when she was still alive, is included in Katherine Teck, Movement to Music, pp. 112-114.
Highly recommended is Steven Suskin’s book The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). The author provides an excellent introduction to the art of orchestration; a chronology of Broadway shows from 1920 to 2002; an alphabetical listing of the shows with details of the collaborative credits (as indicated above, in the case of West Side Story, that means credit for each song and dance sometimes measure by measure); and finally, biographical and professional profiles of the leading orchestrators and dance arrangers—including two outstanding orchestrators who were called on for both Broadway shows and theatrical ballet: Robert Russell Bennett and Hershy Kay. Regarding the two orchestrators of West Side Story, see pp. 55-67 for an admiring account of the career of Irwin “Irv” Kostal (1911-1994) and pp. 72-78 for an interesting though brief biography of Sid Ramin (1919-2019). The quoted praise is on p. 76, and the quote from Irwin Kostal is from p. 63.
For an obituary of Irwin Kostal, go to:
For a 2014 tribute to Irwin Kostal, go to this link:
For a March 27, 2003 interview with Sid Ramin at age 84, see The New York Times of March 27, 2003:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C01aS6jnN08 Interview with Sid Ramin in 2011, with Jamie Bernstein. Excellent!
https://leonardbernstein.com/news/blog/83/happy-100th-birthday-to-american-composer-arranger-and-orchestrator-sid-ramin A tribute to Sid Ramin on his 100th birthday in 2019, from the Bernstein associates! They called him the “quintessential super-star behind the scenes” and commented: “To Leonard Bernstein, Sid was almost like a magic totem.” Website includes video of Ramin talking about West Side Story.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/05/arts/music/sid-ramin-dead.html Sid Ramin died at the age of 100 in July 2019. This is an obituary written by Anita Gates for The New York Times.
https://variety.com/2019/music/obituaries-people-news/sid-ramin-oscar-winning-composer-arranger-dies-at-100-1203258793/ And this is another obituary of Ramin, written by Jon Burlingame for Variety.
2021 movie remake:
Steven Spielberg directed a new film of West Side Story, which was released in December 2021 and elicited mixed reactions—including the following reviews and comments from the new choreographer:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/west-side-story-movie-review/2021/12/07/fa8badc0-56df-11ec-a808-3197a22b19fa_story.html A review by Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday, of the new Steven Spielberg movie revision of West Side Story—giving a positive reaction to the cultural reshadings after so many years. New choreography was by Justin Peck.
https://www.npr.org/2021/12/09/1062380664/steven-spielbergs-west-side-story-review Justin Chang’s take on the new movie, as heard on NPR program Fresh Air.
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/review-steven-spielbergs-west-side-story-remake-is-worse-than-the-original In his December 14, 2021 review of the movie, Richard Brody wrote:
A rich and famous artist spends a hundred million dollars to revive a corpse with the blood of young people. The creature is still alive, but barely, and the infusion leaves it deader than when it started. This is not the plot of the latest horror film from A24 but the unfortunate tale of Steven Spielberg’s efforts to remake “West Side Story,” the movie musical about love and ethnic rivalry among New York City gangs. With the screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg has attempted to fix the dubious aspects of the 1961 film, including its cavalier depiction of Puerto Rican characters and its stereotypes of a hardscrabble New York. But, instead of reconceiving the story, they’ve shored it up with flimsy new struts of sociology and psychology, along with slight dramatic rearrangements. They’ve made ill-conceived additions and misguided revisions. In the process, they’ve managed to subtract doubly from the original.
He went on to speak of the “sanctimoniousness” of some of the new dialogue, and bemoans the way “the best things in the old West Side Story are missing.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/08/movies/west-side-story-review.html Review by critic A. O Scott offers many comparisons with original film. He starts out expressing his general attitude towards the original productions:
“West Side Story” sits near the pinnacle of post-World War II American middlebrow culture. First performed on Broadway in 1957 and brought to the screen four years later, it survives as both a time capsule and a reservoir of imperishable songs. What its creators attempted—a swirling fusion of literary sophistication and contemporary social concern, of playfulness and solemnity, of realism and fantasy, of street fighting and ballet—hadn’t quite been attempted before, and hasn’t been matched since.
Moving on to the Spielberg version, Scott wrote:
It’s a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled, and alive. Rather than embalming a classic with homage or aggressively reinventing it, Spielberg, Kushner, Peck and their collaborators (including…composers Jeanine Tesori and David Newman) have rediscovered its breathing essence.
However, the critic concludes:
But what lingers after this “West Side Story” is a darkness that seems to belong more to our own angry, tribal moment than to the (relatively) optimistic ‘50s or early ‘60s.
about the choreographer Justin Peck:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/theater_dance/justin-peck-west-side-story-dancing/2021/12/08/ed75f416-576f-11ec-9a18-a506cf3aa31d_story.html The choreographer Justin Peck describes how he viewed his job of “reinventing” the dances in West Side Story, to update the vision of much-revered choreographer Jerome Robbins.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/10/magazine/justin-peck-is-making-ballet-that-speaks-to-our-everyday-lives.html A lengthy article by Sasha Weiss about choreographer Justin Peck, touching upon his “ídiosyncratic way of hearing music, and the density of steps it generates.”
https://www.justin-peck.com/about-1 Brief information about Justin Peck (b. 1987) who was appointed Resident Choreographer of New York City Ballet in 2014. He has created over 35 new works for NYCB and other companies, with departures such as having dancers wear sneakers instead of pointe shoes. For a peek at his devotion to tap styles, scroll down to excerpt from The Times Are Racing, a male duet filmed in a subway station. The spread of musical styles he uses includes minimalist scores, and the composers of music heard with his dances include Dan Dessner, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Sufjan Stevens. The trailer clips show dances sure to bring in fresh younger audiences!
reactions to the new DVD:
The new Spielberg West Side Story movie was released on DVD in March 2022. Fascinating to read subsequent diverse comments on amazon. One customer offered this viewpoint:
For those who have strong and lingering passion for the original West Side Story – on stage 1957 and on film 1961 – beware: this version, by cinematic giants Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, dumbs down the audience, practically dissolving the magic that Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics gave to Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins theater concept. For some odd reason Spielberg and Kushner decided to ‘fill in the blanks’ of the story with new ideas of gang violence and immigration issues they obviously felt the subtlety of the original didn’t convey with simply music and dance.
However, another viewer found the dance sequences “stunning.” Others were disappointed, comparing the original Robbins choreography. Some older people recalled their deep attachment to the original 1960s film; younger viewers who had never seen that earlier movie were quite enthusiastic about the current one. Some people found the emphasis on violence too unrelentingly grim; others complained that the love story was not presented sympathetically. Others cried. Lots of in-between comments. Take a look for yourself!
Perhaps the most important thing to notice about the DVD film is that it is not essentially a fantasy “musical” at heart, but rather a strongly realistic drama that includes some songs and dances. There are a few scenes where Justin Peck’s talents as a choreographer were put to work: the gang dancing down the street near the opening; the “mambo” group dance; and later on “America” performed in the streets by both men and women. But the famous original “Cool” episode has been transformed to essentially a choreographed fight between two men. Also changed is the performance of “There’s a Place for Us,” now sung alone by Rita Moreno as a pharmacist, with visuals to suggest a more sociological message involving not just the specific lovers, but all Puerto Ricans.
Composer/conductor David Newman arranged and adapted Bernstein’s original score for the film. Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted the orchestra during the film’s recording sessions first in New York and then in L.A.
Focusing on the orchestral music alone, from the first seconds of the 2021 film, the new musical arrangement somehow seems to lack the pungency and instrumental color of the original score and performances. That might have been intentional, since throughout most of the film, music is used more like background sonic soundscape as in many other movies where the focus is on realistic drama. In this case, apparently Spielberg wanted contemporary audiences to engage emotionally with endless scenes of rubble and violence, interspersed now and then with newly inserted preachy dialogue (unfortunately delivered in phony accents that do not sound natural to the characters’ purported situations). He does hark back to Shakespeare’s play by having the leading couple declare their “marriage” to each other in the Cloisters. But there is an awful lot of soul-searching talking about inner feelings, especially about hate between gangs.
As previously observed, this is really not a “musical” in the Broadway tradition. If you want to pay more attention to Bernstein’s score, try the link above for the recording session conducted by the composer himself. And if you do watch the new DVD, you might at some point find it of interest to compare it with the earlier film. And also to listen for the differences!
In comparison to viewers’ mixed reactions to the 2022 DVD, it was interesting to come across an amazon customer’s earlier comments about the 1961 film. Despite the many criticisms leveled at the movie by journalists, this viewer was certainly enchanted by it, writing:
One of the most magnificent films ever made in cinema history. West Side Story is one of those films that just blows you away because it is so infinitely and magnificently stunning! It’s mesmerizing, powerful, poetic, filled with art, moving, lovely, and downright beautiful….One of my favorite and most beloved movies of all time. It won 10 Oscars and every one of them was infinitely well deserved. All that hard work those actresses put into their dancing and the beautiful songs…. I love this movie no matter what the critics say….It’s a film that stunningly captivates your heart and soul especially when you behold the beautiful dancing and the beautiful scores.
https://www.westsidestory.com/ Finally, here is a recommended link to the comments of somebody with long experience as a listener: Jamie Bernstein, daughter of the composer! After her personal remarks, the website offers a detailed synopsis of the original Broadway show; casts and credits for live productions in 1957, 1980, 2009, and 2020; also for films of 1961 and 2021; clips of some music; photos; list of awards; a clip of Carol Lawrence (who created the stage role of Maria) recalling the premiere; available recordings for sale; and links to literally dozens of reviews and articles about the new Spielberg movie.
https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2022/01/awards-insider-gustavo-dudamel-west-side-story This is one of their links, an article about the outstanding conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who recorded the orchestral score for the movie.
https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/david-newman-talks-emwest-side-story/ From the BBC Music Magazine, Michael Beek’s article featured the role of David Newman as arranger for the Spielberg film. The musician explained:
Basically my job was to make sure that we kept Leonard Bernstein’s vision. We did not want to modernise or rearrange it. Of course we had to do some of that, but we didn’t want any of that to be ostentatious at all. It was just my job to ensure that it had the integrity that it frankly needed, and that all the authors and Spielberg and the production company wanted. So I did some arranging…I worked very closely with Garth Sunderland at the Bernstein Estate. Really the music is the music, it’s timeless and it’s now part of the concert world canon.
https://variety.com/2021/artisans/news/west-side-story-john-wiliams-leonard-bernstein-1235131071/ And if you want to know more about how the recordings were done, this article by Jon Burlingame in Variety of December 10, 2021 recounts how conductor Gustavo Dudamel led the New York Philharmonic and Latin percussionists for most of the work, then because of COVID finishing up with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Also mentions that David Newman wrote the “underscore” for the film based on incidental music from the Broadway show.
https://entertainment.inquirer.net/437488/steven-spielberg-on-reimagining-west-side-story-the-rage-and-hatred-had-to-be-more-pronounced-conclusion As far away as the Philippines, Rita P. Asilo of the Daily Inquirer both saw an early screening and interviewed Steven Spielberg, who explained to her:
I wasn’t trying to make up for anything that history has done with the play or the 1961 film, because those were all different times, and people were certainly different. There’s a lot more sensitivity today than there ever had been before throughout Hollywood history.
But I poured out an effort to make this a street musical, not a theatrical musical—because Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ ‘60s movie that I loved so much was a hybrid between cinema and theater.
In my case, I wanted this adaptation to just be cinema. Therefore, this brought into the process a prerequisite that everything had to be more realistic, the characters had to be deeper, they had to have more interrelational and interpersonal connections. And the rage and hatred had to be much more pronounced and not safe at all.
Nevertheless, focusing more on the music again, in his April 19, 2022 review for the Washington Examiner, Harry Khachatrian commented:
The star of West Side Story has always been Leonard Bernstein….
Bernstein bridged the gap between highbrow and lowbrow, between young and old, between classical music and Broadway, jazz, and rock.
After pointing out some of the major changes made in the Spielberg movie, the critic concluded: “It may be Spielberg’s remake, but it will always be Bernstein’s West Side Story.”
The Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet is based on inter-family animosity. One of its more recent incarnations was a family affair in the good sense. Though not “history-making,” yet this may be of interest especially to younger readers because it is a sample of how generations of dancers and musicians continue to respond creatively to the Bard’s story in modern times.
A rock musical version was prepared in a workshop at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1999 in Connecticut and then staged at the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul. The production was conceived and developed by Terrence Mann (husband of dancer Charlotte d’Amboise) with musical collaboration between Mann and Jerome Korman (music director of Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute) and choreography by Christopher d’Amboise (son of Jacques, and himself a former dancer with New York City Ballet). Starring roles were portrayed by well-known singer/actors Patrick Wilson and Irene Malloy.
Subsequently in 2004 this rock version was presented as part of the North Carolina Arts Festival, with 50 young people from 17 schools participating. The show was also mounted at a festival in Aspen.
Although the creative artists collectively had hoped to make it to Broadway, that didn’t happen. However, maybe they were just before their time, for subsequently, the musical Hamilton became a hit and certainly departed from “classical” portrayals of serious characters, whether historic or fictional. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of clips available of this Romeo and Juliet on You Tube, but the viewers said they wanted to see and hear the entire stage work. Maybe its life isn’t over yet; who knows?
Rather amazingly, many groups in different countries seem to be trying their hands—and their voices and their moving bodies dancing—at presenting modernized rock versions of Romeo and Juliet. It is hard to imagine what Shakespeare would have thought of all this, but clips of just a few of the many versions can be viewed via the internet links given below.
notes and explorations:
Reviews apparently were a “mixed bag,” but you can see a few clips of the Mann-Korman musical for yourself on You Tube, and the effort did not seem misplaced for young audiences of the time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oxu6FElHNw is “Brawling Love.” Viewers heartily wished to see and hear more!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tHM1H3cWBQ The balcony scene.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w27qyLDYAPs A clip from 1961 Bell Telephone Hour of Jacques d’Amboise and Violette Verdy as youthful Romeo and Juliet. Choreographed by Donald Saddler to music by Berlioz. This is an example of including spoken text from Shakespeare’s play and from his Sonnet No. 18.
Terrence Mann followed that example with the inclusion of the same sonnet, but set to music. Writing in the Aspen Daily News in 2013, Andrew Travers described this particular version:
The teen production included a live band backing its 19 original songs with keyboard and drums, that gave much of the performance a rock and funk sound. The energetic young cast came from Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt and beyond.
Mann and Jerry Korman’s music turns Shakespeare’s words into a diverse array of melodic ballads and rock foot-tappers. The young cast wore modern clothes…and brought a refreshingly innocent spirit to the play’s star-crossed lovers….
The sonnet song “Shall I Compare Thee” is a gorgeous composition.
https://dance.gmu.edu/profiles/cdambois Brief career information about Christopher d’Amboise, as faculty member at George Mason University.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Wilson_(American_actor) Information about the subsequent career successes of this actor/singer. His “Juliet,” Irene Malloy went on to notable roles on television.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrence_Mann Information about the substantial stage career of Terrence Mann. For information about his musical collaborator Jerome Korman, see the next essay’s section about the National Dance Institute.
Keone and Mari Madrid:
In February 2020 another dance work inspired by Romeo and Juliet was slated for a 10-week run at New York City’s Gym at Judson Church in Greenwich Village—just before the virus hit so badly. Titled “Beyond Babel,” it was created and directed by the acclaimed dancer/choreographers Keone and Mari Madrid. It did not have a musical score; rather, the hip-hop style dance numbers were set to pop songs. Brian Seibert of The New York Times called it “a kind of jukebox musical without dialogue.” He also found the choreography “engaging and extremely detailed.” Noting that it had “lots of heart,” he went on to suggest: “That spirit, channeled through dancing of high talent and skill, is enough to make it a winner.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/02/arts/dance/beyond-babel-review.html Here is the review of February 2nd.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/arts/dance/keone-mari-madrid-good-vibes-dance.html And by the same journalist, here is an account of what these unusual choreographers did after being hit themselves by the virus and suspending their performances and rehearsals of multiple projects (including rehearsing for Britney Spears Broadway-bound musical show). Ended with some cheerful suggestions readers could try at home with their hands.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMrgi5qZocQ clip of preparations for their performance. (Episode 8; there are others mounted separately). Fascinating choreography, and well-worth exploring the work of these artists!
other rock settings:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLkqmOtfZUE Indication that in 2008 the idea of a rock version of Romeo and Juliet still found some appeal among the young: this an Australian student group in a musical composed by Craig Waldron.
Among the available excerpts or complete performances is the fully staged 2-1/2 hour version by Gerard Presgurvic in French, viewed by going on three million people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xi21XHWV0D4
A 26-minute clip of a version translated into Lithuanian, with dancers:
There are a number of links for the Dire Straits 1996 version. This is a brief clip of their music video: https://vimeo.com/248758450
And an Italian production with multimedia staging; here are only still photos and brief trailer collage, but they look very intriguing:
But wait, there’s more! For pictures and clips of other settings of Romeo and Juliet in rock style, go to:
For theater-goers who want to keep up-to-date, in November 2022 the jukebox musical “& Juliet” opened on Broadway. Reviews were mixed on the dance aspects choreographed by Jennifer Weber. But Peter Marks of The Washington Post called the production a “bubble gum musical” and wrote:
A London import refreshed with a mostly American cast, the show is a “Romeo and Juliet” parody buoyed by 28 songs chiefly by Karl Martin Sandberg, better known as Max Martin. It’s strictly for kicks—breezy and campy, with some fine voices and even better dancing….
We are ever deeper into jukebox territory on Broadway, where pop now pops like no other genre….
The story has a simple premise: What if Juliet didn’t use that “happy dagger” after waking up from Friar Lawrence’s magic potion and went instead to hang out with her friends in Paris? The show, with a script by David West Read, tosses “Romeo and Juliet’s” author and his wife into the antic mix; their meta-theatrical roles posit them as writing partners in a revision of the play that hews to the sexual politics of the 2020s.