Macbeth, the Musical

GR fall drama kids.jpgHigh school spring musicals are among the most predictable of art forms. Take an old Broadway standard, like “Guys and Dolls” or “Gypsy,” and cast it entirely in teenagers. Add set, costumes and candy bars to sell at intermission and you’re done.
But not in Glen Ridge, not this year. High school drama club director Garth Kravits unveiled his choice for spring musical to the drama club last week, a “rock out version of Macbeth.” With this catch: the kids would be writing the music.
Reaction was mixed, with some kids hoping for a more conventional show. Kravits understands. “It’s scary,” he says. “I’m asking these kids to hold my hand and jump into the deep end.”


But not without precedent. For the fall play, the small drama club took David Ives’ “All in the Timing” — a collection of funny, absurd short plays that is popular with high schools — and added several sketches of their own. They also wrote an original song and made a short film as part of the production. Several of the kid-written sketches were as funny as Ives.
And the very first fall play that Kravits directed with the group, back in 2006, was called “Shakespeare on Ice, Without the Ice.” It included a number of Shakespeare love scenes, threaded together with funny pieces written by the cast.
The idea for turning a Shakespeare play into a musical has been simmering in Kravits’ brain for a while. Then, while rereading Macbeth, it suddenly occurred to him to set the story in a modern corporation, with Duncan as the CEO and “this guy Macbeth totally looking to move up in the world.” Kravits sees the witches as some kind of “carnival coming to town,” and an opportunity to introduce some colorful lighting — and music — into the sterile corporate stage set.
The club also plans to videotape the entire project as it progresses.
Ambitious? Yes. Crazy? Maybe.
Kravits admits, “It’s either going to be the ultimate creative disaster or it’s going to be awesome.”
I’m hoping for awesome. But I’d even take a creative disaster over yet another production of “Bye, Bye Birdie.” The production is scheduled for late March.
Photo from “All in the Timing”: Catherine Blauch, PJ Alampi and Noah Levinson.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I may be immensely unpopular for what I’m about to say, but let me first state that I am, too, a high school theatre director. I work for both the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and the Folger Shakespeare Library–so I have some knowledge that backs up my opinion. Still, it’s just that: an opinion. Feel free to discuss it.
    I applaud this director for thinking outside the box, for bringing Shakespeare to his students, and for being willing to take creative risks. If his bio is anything to judge by, these students are immensely fortunate to be working with such a talented, professional, and experienced director.
    The only issue I take here is this. In the article above, it says the following:
    “Then, while rereading Macbeth, it suddenly occurred to him to set the story in a modern corporation, with Duncan as the CEO and ‘this guy Macbeth totally looking to move up in the world.’ Kravits sees the witches as some kind of ‘carnival coming to town,’ and an opportunity to introduce some colorful lighting — and music — into the sterile corporate stage set.”
    This is not particularly original, and it’s kind of like plagiarism to imply it is. The music part, yes. But not the concept. Watch Scotland, PA, and you’ll see a modernized Macbeth featuring witches who live at a broken-down carnival. Watch Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet and you’ll see a king (Claudius, in this case) featured as the CEO of a modern-day NYC corporation.
    I applaud the risk-taking. I hope the students will be encouraged to uncover and unwrap Shakespeare, not hide him underneath modern language rock songs. But I take offense to the implication that this setting or concept is completely unique. As directors, we all want to be unique. The beauty of Shakespeare is that he does most of the work for us already.

  2. Watch Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet and you’ll see a king (Claudius, in this case) featured as the CEO of a modern-day NYC corporation.
    Ah, I thought that sounded familiar.
    I’m likewise expecting to get downvoted for this, but here goes: Part of me isn’t sure about the “modernized musical” format. I can see a modernized play, and I can see a musical version of the original (I’m imagining a choreographed Birnam Wood scene now), but I’m not sure whether putting both devices into the same production doesn’t stray too far.
    I would also question having the students write all the music for a musical — not that they’re not talented enough, but it seems like a huge undertaking in a relatively limited amount of time. Obviously the director knows his students better than I do, though, and I wish all of them the best for the production.

  3. I can hear it now. Much of the music will be by both Porno Hate Train (remember them?) and walleroo’s personal fave, Drums of Thunder!
    Kravits’ remark about holding kids’ hands and jumping into the pool with them might have been trimmed, however, since it’s surely borderline tasteless (at the very least) in this day and age.
    There’ve been two movie versions of “Othello” with jazz ands then rock soundtracks, interestingly. One was called “All Night Long” and was set in a warehouse in the London docklands; Patrick McGoohan played the Iago-like character, and the band in the background throughout the movie included Charles Mingus.
    Then, in the late 60’s, there was the very, very bad “Catch My Soul,” which as best I could make out was set in some kind of hippie commune in New Mexico; Richie Havens plated Othello in that one, and the movie was in fact directed by none other than Patrick McGoohan.

  4. And who could forget MEN OF RESPECT, another modern day telling of MacBeth set in the Mob world starring John Turturro.

  5. torytalbot, I’m sure I oversimplified Garth’s creative process in coming up with the idea. And he never claimed that he was the first one to put Macbeth in a modern, or even corporate, setting.
    But two things do seem noteworthy, especially in a high school spring musical: setting the book to original music, and having the students do the writing.

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