Shakespeare’s “Much Ado…” Reimagined
CHESTERTOWN, MD—Remember “Much Ado About Nothing”?
It’s Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy, the one where two sharp-tongued sophisticates, Beatrice and Benedick, war merrily, falling in and out and back in love again. The simpler lovers, Hero and Claudio, have more complicated ups and downs, but in the end, there’s a happy double wedding.
“Much Ado” has been a favorite since before 1600, and producers haven’t been shy about modernizing the language and the sets, but when it appears during the National Music Festival at Washington College in June, it will be completely reimagined. This time, Shakespeare’s tale is going Hollywood retro as “A Merry War,” which will have its world premiere at the Tawes Theatre, Gibson Center for the Arts at Washington College, on Sunday, June 9, and Monday, June 10, during the two-week National Music Festival. (For information and tickets, go to www.nationalmusic.us.)
Philip Rosenberg (brother of Richard, the National Music Festival’s artistic director and co-founder) said he was directing a production of “Much Ado” nine years ago at Hunter College High School in New York, when he had a blinding glimpse of the obvious.
“I thought: Beatrice and Benedick – they’re Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! They fall in love and out of love and somehow they get back together again. It’s the story of every Fred and Ginger movie.”
Wouldn’t it be fun, Rosenberg mused, if the play were reworked as a 1930s Hollywood musical, if the characters were thespians instead of warriors, and if it were set on New York’s Park Avenue?
Since that moment, Rosenberg has been imagining, writing and tinkering. Now settling into his new home in Chestertown, he’s debuting the show he calls “A Merry War!” Many of the cast members are students at Washington College, and the male lead is played by Dustin Peterson, who wowed Chestertown audiences at the festival’s cabaret fundraiser in April.
The play takes place in the elegant apartment of Eleanor, played by NPR veteran anchor Liane Hansen. Fashioned as an Ethel Barrymore character, this wheelchair-bound doyenne of a royal acting family is hosting a gathering of family and actor friends to welcome Benedict home from Hollywood.
“It’s the 1930s,” Rosenberg explained. “Beatrice and Benedict had acted in musicals on Broadway before the story begins, but Benedict went off to Hollywood three years ago to act in talkies, and now he’s back, tail between his legs, because his career never took off. Eleanor is trying to get them back together.”
Rosenberg said he has loved the Fred and Ginger movies since he first watched them on his family’s black and white Westinghouse television when he was growing up in the 1950s. “Everything was beautiful in those movies,” he recalled, “the art deco architecture, the fabulous costumes, this constant non-stop witty dialogue and some of the most gorgeous music every written.”
“A Merry War!,” he said, is a perfect fit.
Rosenberg comes to the National Music Festival stage with a lifetime of music and theater experience under his belt. He’s been a composer and musician since he was young, and he has taught college and high school all his adult life, at Temple University, Jersey City State College, Yeshiva University, Columbia University, City College of New York and Harlem School of the Arts.
He started the instrumental music program and the Theater Ensemble at Hunter College High School, was music director and resident composer of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for nine years, and composed scores for the Roundabout Theater in New York as well as the Hot Springs Music Festival, Pennsylvania Ballet and Riverside Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp.
A full schedule of festival concerts, as well as free events and rehearsals, can also be found on the website: www.nationalmusic.us.