Shakespeare's themes are universal we can all identify with the emotions and the politics of his plays
Ahead of our major new production, A Winter’s Tale, Emmy, BRIT and BAFTA award winning Composer Howard Goodall talks to us about his work, adapting Shakespeare for musical stage, working with YMT and his commitment to music education.
Q. When adapting Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, one of his later and more complex plays for musical stage did you find any unique challenges?
Shakespeare's play has lots of unusual and quasi-magical aspects to it, for sure. It has many of the tricks he employs in his comedies - mistaken identity, separated families, exotic locations, rustic folk being, well, rustic, and so on, yet it also has a deadly serious heart.
Q. The production to be performed at Rose Theatre Kingston is a new interpretation of the story, without giving too much away, what is the show about and what can audiences expect?
Its two acts are separated by 16 years, and it looks at the very different ways that the mature and the young view and configure their world: because of this theme alone it feels amazingly germane to our own time. Plus, it has an absolutely stunning surprise moment in its final scene (no spoilers...) which echoes a similar event in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, which was an inspiration for me too! Jealousy, loyalty and the redemption of love are all themes in the play that lend themselves, I think, quite readily to conversion into songs. The musical is unashamedly emotional, and though this is partly true of the play, adding music deepens and - in some ways - simplifies the impact of the original. And, since I have a long background in comedy, I looked for opportunities to add some laughs in the songs. I hope I've succeeded!
Q. What do you think it is about Shakespeare’s work that has endured for so long?
Shakespeare's themes are universal even when his language sometimes sounds antique. We can all identify with the emotions and the politics of his plays - people's behaviour doesn't alter much over the centuries even if their clothes and their circumstances change. In this play, for example, Shakespeare paints a vivid, utterly believable portrait of a paranoid, angry, despotic ruler, whose megalomania extends to all those around him including those closest to him - his wife and children. If Shakespeare were alive now, he'd describe Leon, the ruler in question, as a man with 'toxic masculinity'. How those around him have to deal with this, in Shakespeare's play and in our modern world are not very different. Passionate love between two teenagers whose parents are disapproving is another theme in the play and as far as I can see that issue is still very much alive in our world too. Above all, there is a profound humanity and compassion in the way Shakespeare plays out his characters' journeys and one reason his stories can be so moving is because we recognise, without always acting upon, the possibility of compassion in our own lives. Add music and the combination can be incredibly emotional. Which I hope is where we come in!
Q. Your music has been performed hundreds of times - do you still get a thrill from hearing it performed?
Is it uncool to say, YES? Every live performance is new, every performer's interpretation is different and fresh and stimulating, every new generation finding my pieces and re-inventing them is a thrill.
Q. If you could be remembered for one piece of music - what would it be?
I honestly think this question is impossible, like asking someone which of their children they like best! I expect what I want and what the public will decide I am remembered for will be completely different things, in any case. Amongst my musicals, it might be The Hired Man (My first West End musical in 1984), or Bend it Like Beckham (my most recent) but my own personal favourite is A Winter's Tale, the final scene of which makes me cry (in a good way) every time. Amongst my choral works, my Eternal Light: A Requiem is the most performed (just coming up to 600 live performances around the world) and my new Invictus: A Passion (I conducted its world première in Houston in March and its CD is released this month) seems to be capturing the imagination of lots of choirs and their directors: they are deeply heart-felt pieces on a larger scale, but of course millions of folk will think instantly of my Psalm 23 setting composed for The Vicar of Dibley. Frankly I will be lucky enough if anyone remembers anything of mine after I've gone!
Q. You are an energetic campaigner for music education yourself, how important are the opportunities given to young emerging performers and musicians by organisations like Youth Music Theatre UK?
There are two parallel issues here: the function of the arts as ways of discovering ourselves, of finding our place in the world, of exploring our feelings and our fears, of creating community and togetherness, of becoming genuinely creative and daring and of developing as a rounded human being. For all these extraordinary gifts, an organisation like YMT is of incalculable value to the young people who engage with it, irrespective of what they will make of their lives once they move on to their next stage.
But the second issue is that of the arts as a dynamic industry, creating jobs, enhancing our country's 'soft' influence in the world, boosting exports and tourism, giving voice and self-respect to communities perhaps left behind: all these attributes are also important for us as a society and YMT has had conspicuous success in nurturing talent that is later a huge feather in our collective caps. One in every eight albums bought last year in the world was by a British artist; this is an amazing statistic and in quite a significant part due to one man - Ed Sheeran - who started his journey into music with YMT. How brilliant is that?
Q. Youth Music Theatre UK has produced some pretty successful performers – what are the company like to work with?
Jon Bromwich (Executive Producer at YMT) and I share an interest in promoting and developing creative work for young people. I have known cast and worked with quite a lot of YMT alumni over the years as well, for example Lauren Samuels who starred in my West End musical Bend it Like Beckham in 2015-16. It is fair to say that some of the most outstanding performers in our industry have begun their musical theatre journey with this company.