The Music of Shakespeare: “Under the Greenwood Tree.”
It’s always interesting to me to see how productions handle the music of William Shakespeare. It’s how I got started with Bare Theatre, back in 2005 when we did Titus Andronicus. The text of those 37 plays is so universal/versatile that it can be played in any genre, and that versatility translates directly into the songs within the text.
Lyrics have always been difficult to me. I pick out melodies and harmonies, and I’m no poet. So it’s always a relief to have the words to a song done for me. I always find it easier to write music to words that are already laid out, because the lyrics usually have at least some rhythm built into them. The surrounding dialogue usually gives good indication of the mood and direction for the music.
For As You Like It, I’ve been able to sit back and let someone else write the music. It’s been a great experience watching The Zinc Kings and seeing what they’ve come up with. I love their arrangements, and I think they do a wonderful job of picking up the rhythm and spirit of each song.
I thought it would be fun to compare some different takes on the most famous song from As You Like It, “Under the Greenwood Tree.” The following versions couldn’t be more different from each other, and I think it only speaks to the power of the text that so much can be done with it.
Here’s The Zinc Kings’ version in our production. This is the music video / web trailer shot by Altercation Pictures:
Catchy, right? I love how upbeat it is, and also that it really does sound like a traditional American tune (maybe except for the “Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame…” line). I think it’s a fantastic version, and even after hearing it and singing it for weeks, I’m not getting sick of it – the opposite, really! I love it more and more.
A lot of versions are more traditional in the Renaissance sense. This one is an interesting comparison by Ray Leslee, performed by New York’s Antara Ensemble with Nathan Lee Graham and Harold Jones, conducted by Ariel Rudiakov:
The musicianship here is pretty amazing, and obviously this is a very classical, operatic rendering of the song. The quality is obviously there, but this isn’t the kind of “everybody join in” song The Zinc Kings created. That wasn’t the point of this version nor is it typical of this type of music. It’s meant to be listened to, respectfully. I think this is what a lot of people would imagine a song from Shakespeare should sound like.
Here is perhaps the most well-known version today, popularized by Donovan in 1967. Call it the hippie version:
It’s got a generous helping of “Mellow Yellow” and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” overtones to it. Personally, I love a lot of Donovan’s music, he’s one of the seminal sounds of the sixties. In my opinion, he had a little trouble fitting the words to the meter – it just feels slightly forced. What I think is really interesting though, is how much this version sounds like it’s about sex (is that just me?). Maybe it’s all the “Will you, won’t you…” at the end – which Donovan added, it’s not in the script.
There’s many more versions out there, but I thought this was an interesting cross section. If you have any notable versions of this or any other Shakespeare songs – post in the comments below! I’d love to hear them.