What's New on the Rialto
Shakespeare's Songbook and
The Complete Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse
By Jonathan Frank
Even a casual reading of William Shakespeare's plays will reveal his works to be filled with music, as it is performed or alluded to throughout most of his shows. Songs and dances were utilized in most of his canon to further the dramatic storytelling, set an emotional mood, or simply to entertain the audience in an almost variety show format. However, the use of music in Shakespeare's shows goes beyond the obvious, for integrated into his plays are portions or references to a great many popular songs of the day. In fact, his quoting or referring to drinking songs, rounds, and popular ditties of the day makes the works of Shakespeare closely resemble Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge in the way they used the popular music of the day to provide a sort of poetic shorthand to impart knowledge about a character or situation, as well as to create a definite atmosphere.
Ross. W. Duffin, a professor of music at Case Western Reserve University, has spent eight years researching the songs that appear in Shakespeare's works. The result of his labors is Shakespeare's Songbook, a collection of 165 songs that appear in some form or another in Shakespeare's plays. The songs are presented in an alphabetical format, as a number of the songs appear in multiple plays, with a probable tune written out and as many lyrics as have survived the centuries. A short essay on each song's use in Shakespeare's plays, as well as the song's history and whether it was written specifically by Shakespeare or integrated by him into his shows, further enhance each listing.
Shakespeare's Songbook also provides a treasure trove of information on how the numbers were performed, as it contains an Elizabethan pronunciation guide and a CD that contains roughly half of the songs as performed established performers who specialize in early-music. Performers of Elizabethan music will find the book an invaluable resource of lyrics and melodies. Lovers and researchers of Shakespeare will discover yet another layer of knowledge that enhances one's understanding of the world for which Shakespeare was writing, as well as the various characters' internal life.
If P. G. Wodehouse is remembered at all today, it is for his Wooster and Jeeves series rather than for his impact on musical theater. However, in addition to the nineteen plays that Wodehouse played a part in creating, between 1905 and 1934 he was responsible for the libretto or lyrics (and oftentimes both) for almost forty musical comedies. Indeed, in 1917 Broadway had five of his shows running simultaneously.
Barry Day, editor of Noel Coward: The Complete Lyrics, has compiled the lyrical output of P.G. Wodehouse in a book appropriately entitled The Complete Lyrics of P. G. Wodehouse that collects the lyrics of the nearly forty musicals he wrote between 1904 and 1947. The songs of each show are prefaced with a synopsis of the show, which includes performer and creator credits as well as the plot, and the pages are illustrated with production photos and reproductions of programs and sheet music covers.
While Oklahoma! or Showboat are usually regarded as the originators of the integrated musical, Wodehouse, oftentimes with Jerome Kern at the musical helm, was arguably the first writer to cast aside the heightened language of the operetta and write stories and lyrics utilizing the speech of the day. Only one song by Wodehouse is well known today, and ironically most listeners are unaware that he was its lyricist. The song "Bill" was originally cut from two shows before it berthed in Showboat. Although the song's lyrics are generally assumed to have been written by Showboat's lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, Wodehouse wrote all but eight lines of the song (Hammerstein rewrote the first refrain from "But along came Bill ... " to " ... would not find in a statue").
The Complete Lyrics of P. G. Wodehouse is a wonderful way to get acquainted with one of the forefathers of musical theater. No less a luminary than Richard Rodgers was quoted as saying "Before Larry Hart, only P. G. Wodehouse had made any assault on the intelligence of the song-listening public," and Alan Jay Lerner was heard to say that "P. G. Wodehouse inaugurated the American Musical."
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