A New Beginning

October 19, 2008

10.15.08

The new beginning is definitely better.   When we originally did ILLYRIA in 2002, the show started with an elaborate shipwreck sequence.   We dramatized the backstory that Shakespeare (wisely) skips over when he opens with Viola already ashore in Illyria.   In that first adaptation, we met Viola and Sebastian on board a ship as it passed the coast of Illyria.   And there was a Sea Captain who gave the twins a crash course in Illyrian current events, introducing Orsino and Olivia.   And then the storm struck–fabric swooshed, music swelled, and Viola landed in Illyria.  

It was a cool opener in some respects, but it didn’t prepare the audience for the show they were going to see.   The mood of it was sweeping, poetical, and not the least bit funny, so it took a while for the audience to feel like they were watching a comedy and were allowed to laugh.   It reminds me of the story about A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum: the show wasn’t working and Jerome Robbins came in and diagnosed the problem.   He said the opening number (“Love Is Going Around”) wasn’t preparing the audience for a raucous comedy… so Sondheim went back to the drawing board and came up with “Comedy Tonight.”

Anyway, we had realized this was the problem by the end of the initial run in 2002, but the solution was by no means obvious.   The story of Twelfth Night depends on certain tragic circumstances:   Viola must believe her brother drowned, and Countess Olivia must have been in mourning for seven years. Before we can have the comedy that follows, we have to set up that situation.   Shakespeare’s solution was to do it as quickly as possible, and to tell rather than show these sad events.   But we felt that we couldn’t begin a musical the way the play begins–with two very brief scenes presenting first Orsino and then Viola.   We felt that the musical had to begin in a bigger, splashier (no pun intended) way, and that’s what led us to the shipwreck.

When ILLYRIA was done at the Shakespeare Theater of NJ in 2004, we made one improvement to the opening:   Feste took over the Sea Captain’s job as provider of exposition.   He now began the show by singing the Sea Captain’s lyric–“Illyria, lovely isle / Some years ago I anchored there awhile…”   But rather than enlightening the twins, he was simply narrating for the audience’s benefit.   He introduced the status quo in Illyria, presenting Orsino and Olivia, and then went on to introduce the twins as the agents of change coming into this static world.   We allowed a smidgen of ironic commentary into Feste’s introductions, but even so, there was still no real comedy in the opener.   Comedy had to wait until the scene immediately following, when Toby, Maria and Andrew made their first appearance.   And as before, the audience wasn’t sure what to make of the new tone after the more solemn beginning.

Cara felt that we somehow had to involve the comic characters in the opening sequence.   Her idea was to insert Toby, Maria and Andrew immediately following the introduction of Olivia–since those characters are part of the Countess’s household.   We had the chance to try out this new idea for a 2006 concert.   I took the song that the comic trio had in Scene 2–“Any In Illyria”–and boiled it down into a new little songlet (“What shall I do in Illyria…?”) in which each of the three took a verse to lay out his or her frustrations.   Then, after this comic interlude, Feste resumed with the introduction of the twins and the shipwreck.   Then, in another bit of new writing, I spun an extended ending out of Feste’s main “Illyria” theme.   One by one, all of the characters joined in singing a contrapuntal hodge-podge out of which emerged a final, choral refrain.   It gave the sequence more closure, and made it feel like a real opener.

But now there was a new problem.   This opening sequence was almost ten minutes long!   Because I’d tried to cover most of what used to happen in scene 2, the comic “interlude” within the opener was over three minutes long.   It broke up the momentum of Feste’s narration.   Also, because Andrew was introduced earlier now, there was a long stretch of four scenes in which he disappeared.   These two issues led us to a further refinement which we’re now trying out for the first time in this 2008 production:   the introduction of Toby, Maria and Andrew has been cut down to a bare minimum within the opening sequence–just enough to tell the audience that there will be some “low comedy” in this show.   Then, some of the extra material for those three has been transplanted to the top of the third scene, when we return to Olivia’s house.   This accomplishes two things:   it knocks two minutes or so off the lengthy opener, and it gives us an opportunity to check in with Toby, Maria and Andrew at more regular intervals.  

So after six years of evolution, I think we have a great opening number that does everything it needs to do.   The changes weren’t so big really, and yet each one of them required a kind of paradigm shift in my brain.   It seems like it could only have happened in baby steps:   a little progress, the perspective gained from that, and then a little more progress.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “A New Beginning”

  1. falcon15 said

    This is terrific reading! Thanks for taking the time to explain all this – I love reading about what makes a show tick.

    Although, selfishly, I have to admit that I miss “Any In Illyria.” It’s just so catchy!

  2. Alan said

    Hi, Peter,

    I saw and enjoyed Illyria the other night.

    But I’m puzzled by something you wrote here: “The story of Twelfth Night depends on certain tragic circumstances: Viola must believe her brother drowned, and Countess Olivia must have been in mourning for seven years.”

    I just wanted to point out that in Twelfth Night, Olivia hasn’t been in mourning for seven years. It’s only recently (though we’re not sure exactly how recently) that her brother has died. She’s planning to mourn for seven years.

    Surely if she’s been in mourning for seven years, no one has tell that to Orsino in the opening scene. Instead, in the opening scene the message is brought to Orsino that she’s going to mourn for seven years.

    And Feste has clearly been away since before her brother has died. But there’s nothing to suggest that he’s been away for more than seven years.

    But I probably don’t need to go on about this. You probably just mistyped.

    Best,
    Alan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: