Twelfth Night – A Joyful Return to Musical Theatre
Conceived By: Kwame Kwei-Armah & Shaina Taub
Music & Lyrics: Shaina Taub
Year: 2016 & 2018 (The Public Theater, New York)
At the end of a year in which theatres have been largely dark, I was surprised and delighted to be asked by Seattle Rep’s Public Works program to play guitar for their online production of Shaina Taub & Kwame Kwei-Armah’s musical adaptation of Twelfth Night. In this article I describe my experience working on the show, reflect on how much theatre has been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and how good it felt to be working on a theatrical production again.
After COVID-19 closed Seattle’s theatres in March 2020, a brief period of inactivity, shock and readjustment was followed by the emergence of low key online events and classes at many theatres. This led to more ambitious summer camps, small “radio play” online shows, and by autumn some more ambitious online productions. But a Public Works production would be something of a different magnitude, and I did wonder how it could be done.
Typically, Public Works productions are very large events, involving around a hundred performers, a band and a full set on a big stage. Most of the performers are community artists; only a handful are professional actors. The performers are nurtured and rehearsed by a large and dedicated production team. The results are thrilling, life-affirming and unlike anything else I have ever worked on in theatre. How could something so big be condensed onto a screen, and still capture the spirit of the in-person productions? How would it be rehearsed and technically managed?
TWELFTH NIGHT – THE MUSICAL
Kwei-Armah & Taub’s lovely musical was commissioned by The Public Theater in New York as part of its Public Works program. Its modern score blends jazz and funk, soul, blues and pop, and songs are interspersed with dialogue excerpts from the play. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night plays with mistaken identity and gender swapping disguises (in Shakespeare’s time, this would have involved men playing women playing men). Taub’s lyrics craftily place insights gained by swapping gender in a more modern context, using them to contrast male and female experiences of living.
First performed over a short Labor Day weekend run at the Delacorte Theater for the Shakespeare in the Park festival in 2016, the show was revived for a longer run in 2018’s festival. An excellent cast recording of the 2018 show is available. Both productions were widely praised, and a further revival was set for the summer of 2020. Of course, that never happened.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
So, how did the Seattle Public Works production team approach their virtual production? The normal technical challenges of lighting, sets, choreography and stage management were replaced by the need to record over fifty separate performances, then edit them together. Technical questions aside, the cast needed to be directed and rehearsed like in any other production, but on a much larger scale. The next-level organization that goes into this process for any Public Works production is always impressive, but this time it had to be done virtually. Rehearsals were held using the ubiquitous Zoom platform, with separate sessions for principal cast, the 50-strong ensemble and a smaller sub-ensemble (the “Goss Poss”, who sang the three “Word On The Street” numbers). All ensemble members were sent piano and click tracks, and recorded their parts individually, on audio and video.
The 7-piece band had one rehearsal (Zoom again), which was more of a talk-through of the musical numbers and recording requirements. Scores were mailed out, or handed over at brief rendezvous. We were provided with piano and click tracks via shared cloud storage and recorded all our parts individually, over a period of about a week.
Once all the music, vocal tracks and dialogue were recorded (audio and video), the whole show was mixed and edited together by some very talented people. Rehearsals, recordings, editing and mixing took about six weeks.
RECORDING EQUIPMENT & PROCESS
I primarily do live performance work, and don’t do a lot of recording. But once I had everything set up, recording tracks for the show was surprisingly straightforward.
Instruments: I used two guitars for the recording: my new Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic, and a 1974 Gibson ES-335 TD (shown in the picture). I also played a little ukulele.
Amp / Effects: I used my Line 6 Helix. I put together one simple patch with a virtual preamp, speaker cab and all of the effects I would need for the recording, and used that throughout.
Audio Interface: I used a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface. It is possible to use the Helix as an audio interface and initially I tried this, but I kept running into latency problems. Once I let the Helix just handle the guitar signal and added the separate interface everything worked perfectly.
Software: I used Cockos’ Reaper DAW software, running on my Lenovo Yoga laptop. It’s an inexpensive but incredibly comprehensive DAW, but the basics are remarkably quick to pick up, and it was great for this project.
Typically, my preparation for a musical involves spending time working through the score before rehearsals start, so that the rehearsals are just for refining the performance. For this project there weren’t any rehearsals, and the time available was very limited, so I adopted a different process:
- I listened carefully to the cast recording, worked out what sounds I was going to use and marked up details such as chord voicings into the score.
- I built my sounds in the Helix for the whole show.
- I loaded up each keyboard & click track to Reaper, and played along with each song until I was satisfied that I could play the part reasonably well.
- For each song, I recorded a few takes, until I had one that I was fairly satisfied with.
- I identified areas where I felt tidying up was needed, re-recorded these on separate tracks, then edited them into the main guitar track until I was satisfied with the overall track for each song.
- I exported each completed track to a WAV file and uploaded it to the project’s shared online space.
I didn’t try to EQ the track beyond my initial settings, because that was better left to the person mixing the tracks together.
As I worked through the songs, I found that the bassist and drummer had uploaded their tracks more quickly than me, so I was able to download and add their performances to the piano & click track, and play along with something more like a whole band, which made the second half of the recording a lot more enjoyable.
The show’s livestream was on December 10th, 2020 at 7:30pm. I’m not sure how many people tuned in, but I know it was a lot, and the YouTube comments chatter was incessant. It was a unique experience – the first time I have ever been able to watch my own performance live on an opening night! The show was very satisfying, filled with joyful, exuberant performances and technically polished (the band mix sounded great, so thanks to the production team for that!). It was also a night of mixed emotions; while it was a joyful occasion, it served simultaneously as a reminder of how much is missing from our lives at the moment – I really miss live theatre, and I can’t wait to play in one again.
The show was available to view for four days after the livestream, and then had to be taken down under the terms of the performance license. As the Production Manager said to me, “I wish we could let everyone keep a copy but I literally have to put it on a thumb drive and lock it in a cabinet”. I understand the rules, but given the circumstances of the production it would be nice if the video could have remained online as a reminder of a moment when, for the first time, it felt like we will be able to perform together again, and things are going to get better.
I am so very thankful to have had the chance to play in part in this production of Twelfth Night. At the end of a year where the world has been filled with isolation, pain and loss, it was profoundly uplifting to be part of this brief shining moment of hope and togetherness, to be reminded that the pandemic will pass, and we will get through it, emerging stronger by caring for and understanding one another.
“If we open our hearts to each other’s beat,
What a better world it could be…”
Twelfth Night (play) Wikipedia entry
Shaina Taub homepage
NY’s The Public Theater
Video: Scenes from the original 2016 production of Twelfth Night
Video: “Play On” from 2018 production of Twelfth Night
NY Times review of NY 2016 Public Works production
NY Times review of NY 2018 Public Works production
Cast recording: CD and YouTube playlist
Twelfth Night licensing (Concord Theatricals)
Delacorte Theatre (1800-seat open-air amphitheater in Central Park, NY)
Public Works – Seattle
Tom Anderson Guitarworks
Focusrite Scarlett audio interfaces
Line 6 Helix
Reaper DAW software