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MEASURE for MEASURE: Shakespeare with a Dystopian Twist

Music prepared for Act V, Scene 1, Measure for Measure.

All music for the production was produced using the Reason DAW program.

Incidental music: it almost seems like a lost art these days…..

Modern theater productions are now accustomed to using experienced staff people in the field known as sound design. Professionals in this area are the equivalent of set or costume designers. What they provide for the production could be just about anything, from basic sound cues required by the script to selected pieces of music/sound that underscore the story or time period of the play. This work often includes contributions during pre-show or at the intermission.

I have provided sound design for productions in the past, but what I am really interested in is the composition of original music, as opposed to found music. To take a play, study it carefully, and determine when music might be used effectively is a wonderful challenge. Each play is a world unto itself; it is my job to figure out where music will enhance the drama and where it should stay away….

Is every play conducive to incidental music? No. Some plays with historical connections, for example, may be better off with period music that the audience might better appreciate. Other plays have an intensity that music might obscure; enjoy the silence instead and listen to the play in a different manner. Music is a natural for some dramas, perhaps less so with comedy. But if the opportunity to compose original music is tied to a play by William Shakespeare go for it, comedy or tragedy!

My latest experience with incidental music came from an invitation from Karla Kash, the Director of the Heidelberg Theater program. Her upcoming 2023-24 season included politics as an overall theme. After just a bit of discussion, we decided to collaborate on her fall production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Karla had decided to “politicize” the play beyond its basic plot by recasting it in modern times. This new production was to set in a dystopian future, with a society that is much like the one found in Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Costuming would be inspired by the design for the Hulu television series.

Author Margaret Atwood (Wikipedia Commons)

So what does a composer do with such an opportunity? The first steps are standard: read the play! Study the script carefully. Decide which elements in the play might be enhanced by music; there is no standard answer here. In some cases, the music might relate to selected characters in the play. In other situations, the music might spend time underlining the mood and theme of the show. Since this production was not going to be set in the sixteenth century, but in a sci-fi like future, I had to think of music that would fit the setting of this project, but could also be used in another presentation of the play at a different location, one with a different interpretation. Recycling is often a good thing!

Measure for Measure is known as a “problem play.” A problem play presents an unusual blend of comedy and darker, psychological drama. Social issues may be the source for at least some of the play’s content. The term was created by scholar F.S. Boas, who applied the term to three Shakespeare projects: All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure. Later scholars have applied this concept to other Shakespeare plays, including The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale.

After conversations with Karla, and time spent studying the play carefully, I made a couple of important decisions. Two characters in the play, Angelo and Isabella would have special music that identified them. Angelo is the “temporary” leader of the country where the play takes place; in the true leader’s absence, he attempts to strengthen the government’s hold on sexual morality, among other things. No one can have sexual relations before marriage; men who attempt to do so will be executed. Isabella is a woman whom he encounters in the course of his duties; despite his rigid social views, he is highly attracted to her and attempts to use his power to force Isabella into his bed.

Isabella’s theme is very open and chant-like; in the original play, she is preparing to enter a convent. In contrast, Angelo’s music is very short, a simple, sinister three-note motive. Both are easy for audiences to remember. The rest of the music for the play underscores or introduces important locations and times in the play. This might be anything from a street scene to a prison scene, to a town gathering place, where it is time to celebrate the return of their true leader after his “sabbatical.”

Shakespeare’s plays often feature lengthy speeches that help us to better understand what the characters are thinking or feeling. In the right situation, this is a gold mine for the composer! My score includes underscore opportunities for both Angelo and Isabella, as well as a couple other characters in the play. The challenge: enhance the speech dramatically, but don’t get in the way of that fine, eloquent Shakespearean language! Angelo is a dark, evil character, but low, sinister drones get old very fast. The use of the Angelo motive helps; drones occur but they do not dominate the texture. Other, lighter sounds also appear, selected partially to underscore changes in the monologue that emanates from the stage.

Isabella’s underscore music is totally different. Instead of using her theme, I employ music that suggests the possible tragedy that could envelop her and her brother Claudio. A guitar is used, along with a woman’s chorus on a neutral syllable. The chorus is used throughout the play to suggest the dire place of women in this dystopian society. They are the ones who first introduce Isabella’s theme, and who comment on the play in other ways.

Pre-show music can be derived from the composer’s main score, but this production has a unique variation. Heidelberg student Brianna Clarke, who is playing the role of Isabella, designed a very dramatic video montage that presents the dire issues facing women today. Audiences will see these projections on the set as they enter the theater. I was asked to design music to underscore this presentation. Instead of relying on music from the play, I elected to write a more “ambient” electronic score. The women’s voices are used here, but they are not singing material from the show itself. Bri’s video presentation runs about 6 ½ minutes; my score runs about 10 ½. This insures that repetitions of the video will be greeted with different sounds from my score as they repeat. I hope that this will keep things fresh!

I invite you to go to the RECORDINGS tab on this website for samples of music from Measure for Measure! You will hear examples of character music, underscore music and more. Coming soon: program notes for the cues!


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