The Return of the Lost Shakespeare Jazz Musical: A Midsummer Night Comedy

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When Swingin ‘the Dream opened on Broadway on November 29, 1939, there were expectations of a major success for the makers of this jazz version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music alone seemed worth the admission price.

Ain’t Misbehavin ‘, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Jeepers Creepers and Darn The Dream were among the hits.

All of this was coupled with swinging renditions of his 1842 A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, and the music was performed by some of the biggest names in the business: the band of Bud Freeman played on one side of the stage, the multiracial party of Benny Goodman on the other, and a 50-piece orchestra was conducted by Donald Voorhees in the centre. Reportedly, the trumpeter turned down a role to appear in this play in another Broadway-bound jazz performance, Young Man With a Horn.

Puck was played by Butterfly McQueen (aka Prissy in Gone With the Wind).

Agnes de Mille, who would break new ground a year later for the newly founded Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre with her Black Ritual, supervised the choreography. Including the great tap star Bill Bailey and the three Dandridge sisters (who played Titania’s imp servants), thirteen tireless jitterbugging couples danced. It looked fantastic, too, with sets based on Walt Disney cartoons.

In an electric wheelchair named “World of Tomorrow” Sullivan’s Titania, microphones appeared in the form of snakes and caterpillars, while a pull-out bed hung from a tree…. It seemed destined to become a success, and an extremely original one at that.

After just 13 shows, however, Swingin ‘the Dream closed – costing its investors a whopping $100,000, the equivalent of around $2 million today.

Critics continue to examine what went wrong, complicated by the fact that no script for the show was found, apart from a few pages from the scene of Pyramus and Thisbe, despite an extensive search. CBS Radio broadcast Sullivan and Armstrong performing a few songs and scenes at the end of its brief run, but that recording is also lost. Now, eight decades later, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the New York Theatre for a New Audience are joining forces to broadcast a concert of a work in progress performed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, based on the surviving music of the show. For the artistic director of the Young Vic, the “desire to merge two great art forms, jazz and poetry, while making a statement about the state of the American nation at that time is ripe for exploration.” In 1890s New Orleans, the makers of the show, Erik Charell and Gilbert Seldes, set their musical. The program booklet reminded the audience that the birthplace of swing was “Athens of the South”

In his analysis for the Amsterdam News, New York’s leading black newspaper, Philip Carter offered a valuable description of the adaptation. At its heart, the tale revolves around the marriage of the governor of Louisiana. The two men who work as secretaries for him are in love with the daughter of his cousin, who leaves another Southern belle – who loves one of the boys – by the side of the road. The “plantation workers,” Carter says, “decide to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a wedding entertainment, and the four lovers wander into the enchanted forest, where the magic of Oberon, king of the fairies, first entangles their love affairs and then resolves them.”

All of this forms the backdrop against which Jackie Mabley and her group of actors stumble through the lines of their play’s mock rehearsal: white actors were cast to play the governor and his circle, while the “crude mechanics” and the many spirits that inhabit the forest were played by black actors. While the casting reinforced class and racial distinctions, it also broke down gender boundaries.

Snug is a cleaner, Snout a tower worker, Flute an ice man, and Louis Armstrong’s Bottom a fireman. The first major Shakespearean musical based on the Comedy of Errors, The Boys of Syracuse, had hoped to build on the success of Seldes and Charell.

The all-white cast made successful use of swing, and for 235 performances the show ran. Hybridity was the defining aspect of the emerging Shakespeare musical: mixing musical styles, mixing styles, mixing

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