Last Updated on January 12, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
Royal Shakespeare Company with the Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience presents Swingin’ the Dream
With the country in the grip of winter and living through a third lockdown, we are all looking to find ways of entertaining ourselves in the warmth of our own homes. Netflix is all very well and good, I personally have watched endless series, but I desperately miss the buzz of live theatre.
The creative industries have really been hit really hard this past year with theatres and live music sadly suffering some of the biggest blows, but you can’t hold the creatives down, and many organisations have been beavering away so we can watch live-streamed theatre shows and events from the comfort of our sofas.
Of course, living streaming is not quite the same as being at the theatre but there was a definite air of excitement as I awaited on-line along with a large audience for the first glimpse a “work in progress” of Swingin’ the Dream which was lived streamed from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage. Presented by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Young Vic’s artistic director, who says the “desire to fuse two great art forms, jazz and verse – and in doing so make a statement about the state of the American nation at the time – feels ripe for exploring now”.
Before the show, we were able to join Kwame Kwei-Armah along with Jeffrey Horowitz, Founding Artistic Director of the Theatre for a New Audience in New-York, and the RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran to hear them talk about Swingin’ The Dream and how the idea for the project came about.
This fresh new project is a collaboration between the RSC, London’s Young Vic, and New York’s Theatre or a New Audience. Swingin’ the Dream produced by writer and critic Gilbert Seldes and director Erik Charell was a new musical that premiered in November 1939 at Center Theatre on Broadway, New York. Set in 1890s’ New Orleans this jazz adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream combined swing music with Shakespeare and featured a largely African-American cast.
The production included performances from some of the era’s biggest names notably Louis Armstrong as Bottom, comedian Moms Mabley as Quince, singer Maxine Sullivan as Titania, Butterfly McQueen (AKA Prissy in Gone With the Wind) as Puck, and musical trio the Dandridge Sisters appeared as fairies and many more in its 150-strong cast. It was choreographed by Agnes de Mille, daughter of famed Cecil B de Mille who later went on to break new ground in her Black Ritual for the newly formed Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre. Musical contributions came from the top with Fats Waller, Benny Goodman’s interracial group and Bud Freeman’s band, whilst Donald Voorhees conducted an orchestra of 50, playing smash hits which included Ain’t Misbehavin’, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Jeepers Creepers, and Darn That Dream which went on to be a Jazz standard and sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday amongst many other renowned artists.
One would imagine that with such huge names behind Broadway’s production of Swingin’ The Dream that it would be a massive hit, but in fact it closed after only 13 performances and lost its investors an astounding $100,000, the equivalent to about $2m today. The critics said too much Shakespeare, not enough jitterbug.
So, to see it resurrected again by such high calibre theatre professionals is rather exciting, and from what I have now seen I have no doubt that we are in for a treat.
The concert featured a selection of original songs from the 1939 production, all performed by RSC musicians Neil Charles (Bass), Peter Edwards (MD/Arranger/Piano), Chris Storr (Trumpet) and Zara McFarlane (Vocals). The cast includes Alfred Clay, Andrew French, Kemi-Bo Jacobs, Cornell S John, Georgia Sanders, Mogali Masuku, Baker Mukasa and Anne Odeke, with music by Neil Charles, Peter Edwards, Chris Storr and Zara McFarlane.
“The fact that this production of Swingin’ the Dream existed, and that the manuscript has since disappeared and has never been found, simply intrigues me.” said Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. “ I am really excited by the idea that Louis Armstrong was once in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the fact that there was a producer who wanted to make a statement on Broadway at that time about people coming together to simply create great art.”
The concert was very much a presentation of ideas in development for a future project of the same title, details of which will be announced at a later date. It was delivered with great charm and we were given a lovely insight into the history of Swingin’ the Dream, along with a selection of some of the great original musical numbers including Jeepers Creepers and Darn That Dream, and of course with some of the classic comedy moments from the Dream…. Watch this space!
Swingin’ the Dream will be available to watch until 16 January 2021. To catch it on vimeo, please use the link: bit.ly/swinginthedream