“Twelfth Night” is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular, delightful and charming of romantic comedies. Using the ancient devices of a woman dressed as man who becomes attractive to both another woman and a man and twins who think the other dead, the plot plunges us into the busy household of the Lady Olivia, who has forsworn marriage and the lugubrious household of the Duke Orsino who will not desist in proposing to her.
As a subplot, we have the revenge of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend and source of income Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the servant Maria, and the household fool Feste, along with an extra servant or two, on the puritanical Malvolio who thinks that because he is virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale.
Well, is this not all the stuff of musical comedy? In fact, there are just enough songs Shakespeare wrote into the script that nearly qualify “Twelfth Night” AS a musical comedy. So there little wonder that three musicals have used this play as the basis of their plots. Of them, let us consider the two that lasted more than just a few performances and found their way onto recordings.
“Your Own Thing” opened on January 13, 1968 and enjoyed 933 performances. The score by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar is best described as light-rock and the lyrics (by the same team) had nothing to offend the older generation, who were trying to cope with the “Do your own thing” philosophy of their children and grand-children. (Those who had danced the Charleston and Black Bottom to the dismay of THEIR parents might have been more tolerant, but I doubt it.)
Some of the dialogue is from Shakespeare, as are the lyrics to “Come away death” and “She never told her love.” Sebastian and Viola are a rock duo, separated by a sea wreck. Ilyria is New York. Orson manages a rock group. Olivia owns a discotheque. Viola disguised as Charlie gets a spot in Orson’s band. Sebastian, out of the hospital, runs into Orson, who mistakes him for Charlie. And so on. As you can see, it uses “Twelfth Night” as a starting point and then rocks along in its own direction.
Some credibility is given to these errors by the fact that young men’s hair was as longer if not longer than that of most women—as they were in Shakespeare’s time but not in late 19th-century settings that many productions have been given in the past decades.
The music is goofy and pleasant, as you can hear on the RCA Victor CD that is still available.
“Play On” did not open on Broadway but became a cult favorite very quickly. I saw it on Public Television and was lucky enough to tape it, because the video is simply not for sale as far as I know. Here the Harlem of the 1940s in the background and the only music heard is that of Duke Ellington.
So when young Vy comes to New York from Mississippi to become a songwriter, she is told by the chorus to “Take the A-Train” up to Harlem. But songwriting is a male profession, so her Uncle Jester suggests she disguises herself as a man and go to the Duke for a kick start. The Duke is in a depression from his breakup with Lady Liv, who sings at the Cotton Club. Add to this Rev, Liv’s secretary, who is in love with her and lets himself gets tricked into a wearing an absurd yellow suit and singing “I’m beginning to see the light”—and you have something very very close to what Shakespeare had in mind.
By the way, “Love and Let Love” is the name of the third musical based on “Twelfth Night” and I would love to hear from anyone who has seen it or has any information about it.
So far we have “Kiss Me Kate” which uses “The Taming of the Shrew” for both the framing device and the musical within the musical, “The Boys from Syracuse” that keeps in “The Comedy of Errors” in a sort of Aegean setting and “Oh, Brother!” that transposes it both in time and place, “Your Own Thing” that updates but does not faithfully follow the “Twelfth Night” sequence of events and “Play On” that more or less does.
This leaves us with two more successful treatments that do indeed stick to the plots of their originals but in different ways. Can you guess what they are?