Jazzing the ‘Dream’

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Courtesy photo/UNT, Amanda Breaz
Titania (Kara Leimer) is caught by Oberon (Austin Struckmeyer) in the University of North Texas’ A Jazz Dream, The Musical, based on William Shake¬speare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The world-premiere production, directed by guest artist Maggie L. Harrer, opens Thursday.

UNT graduate students turn ears to past to craft songs for Shakespearean musical

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series about the making of a world-premiere adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. University of North Texas dance, theater, jazz and composition students have joined a pair of professional guest artists to build the production.


“For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews, whose golden
touch could soften steel and stones, make tigers tame
and huge leviathans forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.”

Proteus, in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona

Director Maggie L. Harrer came to the right place to realize the project that had percolated in her imagination for years: adapting the popular Shakespearean play A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a musical.

With a jazz score.

Harrer, a freelance theater director from New York, is a guest artist at the helm of the cross-curriculum theater project culminating in A Jazz Dream, The Musical. Consulting mainly with University of North Texas professor Richard DeRosa, Harrer worked with about nine graduate students — DeRosa’s proteges — to create the score.

The music of A Jazz Dream is inspired by and made up of jazz music from the last years of the 19th century through the 1930s.

“The arrangements are modern jazz,” Harrer said. “In fact, some of the tunes, like ‘Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,’ which is from 1894, sounds very modern in our musical.”

Given the number of musicians writing and arranging music, Harrer said the score would serve the story, fitting the mood, the characters and the needs of each scene.

“I first edited the script and looked for songs that I thought would fit into the moments of high emotions,” Harrer said. “I also worked initially with a jazz musician who had put together the score for Swingin’ the Dream, the original jazz production [of A Midsummer Night’s Dream] in 1939.”

The script for the 1939 Broadway musical has disappeared, but Harrer had the score and a source in Florida who has a library of music from the 1800s and early 1900s. They found some gems in that collection, including “Only One Face in Dreamland” for Titania and Oberon, and “Oh Helen,” a vaudevillian stutter song arranged for the young lovers to sing, when the fairy, Puck, enchants Demetrius and Lysan­der to fall in love with Helena.

DeRosa assembled the students over the summer, and gave them assignments and direction on how to produce the music needed.

Student Michelle Alonso was assigned to write music that would precede the play and then move into the opening scene. The professor also assigned her a number titled “Chant and Lullaby.”

“He told me to write the lullaby as a samba,” Alonso said. “I’m Brazilian, so I know the samba, and I’m a good person to write a samba. He gave me the script, and when you read the script, it’s not like a lullaby a mother would sing to her child. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a lullaby that the fairies would sing to Titania. It’s just not a sweet lullaby. It has different feel to it — a mysterious vibe to it.”

Student Aaron Hedenstrom ar­ranged “Melancholy Baby,” a song from the Broadway score that, in this production, Lysander sings to Hermia.

“All of my parameters were given to me by Rich,” Heden­strom said. “For ‘Melancholoy Baby,’ he gave me the direction of writing along the lines of ‘Fever’ by Peggy Lee, [with a] laid-back drum line and an easy swing. I wrote chords for the flute to improvise over it. It’s short and it’s kind of an easy swing.”

Hedenstrom said he backed away from the jazz in the musical on his second assignment, and riffed on some classical influences instead.

He was to compose music for a piece performed by a fairy named Cobweb. Called “Over Hill Over Dale,” the song taps into a less structured, wilder plane.

“I tried to get that magical, mystical feeling,” he said. “So I wrote the piano piece like a harp, using a glissando up and down. And then I wrote the clarinet part to be doing these flurries of sound. I took some ideas from Debussy and Ravel because they both were dealing with nature.”

He was especially inspired by Ravel’s piece “Jeux d’eau.”

“The words jeux d’eau literally mean ‘water games,’ and it’s this sort of shimmery piece,” Hedenstrom said. “I have the drums sort of imitating an orchestra percussion section, with an extended cymbal effect. I wanted it to have this floaty feeling.”

Alonso said each composer/arranger didn’t know what the others were doing, and revision has been part of the project.

“When I wrote the music for the opening of the show, I didn’t know there was going to be choreography,” Alonso said. “I had to change what I was doing. Basically, when you are composing for drama, you change the way you start composing. I’m not a dancer, and I didn’t realize dance could be choreographed before they had the music. When there are dancers performing, you need to know how many measures they need to do each part of the dance. It takes time for a dancer to move.

“If I’m choreographing for myself, I could compose all sorts of things. I can compose music that uses a lot of speed. But some music is too fast for dancers to do what they need to do, and you can’t always solve the problem by changing the tempo. Just because something sounds good fast does not mean it will sound good slow.”

Some of the most popular Broadway musicals have included a cohesive score, with songs setting up the libretto for the next number using solid musical logic. In The Phantom of the Opera, for example, bits of upcoming songs are tucked into preceding numbers.

Harrer said that wasn’t the goal for A Jazz Dream.

“The priority was to find music that tells the tale and to create a modern jazz styling to which audiences could connect,” she said. “As it turns out, we even jump into hip-hop a couple of times.

“Musicals are cohesive in that the pieces all ‘work’ in the scenes and in the settings. So that was my goal. I think we’ve done a good job and that the musical will be fun and fascinating.”

For Harrer, cohesion can come from intent as readily as it can come from sound.

“I just directed Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter, and stylistically, the music jumps from operatic-sounding pieces to out-and-out jazz pieces to something more Broadway style. The key is not that it all sound the same, but that it works dramatically in the piece,” Harrer said. “And in that sense, I’ve think we succeeded extremely well.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is cbreeding@dentonrc.com.


Jeepers, creepers …

A Jazz Dream, The Musical lifts much of the story of A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream — and all of its characters — and sets it in New York, inside the Tem­ple of Dendur, the “Egyptian room” of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in Central Park. The time is now. The situation is recession, where members of Occupy Wall Street protest the excesses of the financial district.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows a group of teens — the love triangle of Demetrius, Lysander and Hermia, and Helena, who loves Demetrius — into an enchanted forest. The woods teem with fairies, who are conspiring to get their rulers, Titania and Oberon, back together again.

A traveling band of actors bridges the world of the enchanted woods with the world of financial barons and protesters. The play’s the thing that makes ruler and free spirit see their common ideal: love.

— Lucinda Breeding



What: World premiere of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1-3 and Nov. 8-10; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4 and 11

Where: University Theatre, in the UNT Radio, TV, Film and Performing Arts Building, at Welch and Chestnut streets

Details: Tickets cost $10 for adults, $7.50 for students, seniors and UNT staff. For reservations, call 940-565-2428 or visit www.danceandtheatre.unt.edu.

Parking: Lots are available near the building on Welch Street, and a parking garage is located at Welch and Union Circle.

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