At the Shakespeare Theatre, ‘As You Like It’ meets the Beatles

At the Shakespeare Theatre, ‘As You Like It’ meets the Beatles

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Shakespeare and the Beatles? In theater director Daryl Cloran’s “As You Like It,” the two, pardon the pun, come together. He has incorporated about two dozen Fab Four standards into his staging of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, running at Shakespeare Theatre Company from Dec. 2 to 31.

With actor-musicians performing the tunes live, this “As You Like It” has proved a hit since premiering in 2018 at Bard on the Beach festival in Vancouver. The production may not have been here, there and everywhere, but it has certainly traveled around Canada and to Chicago and Milwaukee. The Shakespeare/Beatles matchup is no mere gimmick, Cloran says, as the music and text truly align. When he started work on the production, he remembers, “it really felt, as I went through, that these songs were written for this play.”

It helps that “As You Like It” is a comedy replete with singing, versifying characters. A tale of love and mix-ups in the Forest of Arden, the play depicts banished courtiers passing the time with hey-nonny-no ditties, while the loyal Orlando writes poems extolling his beloved Rosalind, who happens to be disguised as a man. The play is “so lyrical and poetic that there was lots of room to imagine how music can continue the story,” Cloran says.

Speaking from Edmonton, Canada, where he is artistic director of the Citadel Theatre, the director says “As You Like It” originated as a follow-up to a jazz musical version of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” he staged for Bard on the Beach in 2015. That experiment worked out so well that Christopher Gaze, the founding artistic director of Bard on the Beach, proposed a Shakespeare production indebted to John, Paul, George and Ringo. “As You Like It” seemed the obvious choice.

Cloran trimmed Shakespeare’s script to make room for the tunes and pored over the Beatles catalogue to figure out what song might fit where. Fully integrating the music was key. “We didn’t want to just make a jukebox musical where we pause Shakespeare’s play for a moment and listen to a lovely song and then carry on with the story,” he says. “We wanted the songs to continue to propel the story and the characters forward.”

As an example of the “easy fits” he found for the music, he cites the moment in Act 2 when the moody courtier Jaques soliloquizes about meeting a “fool” in the forest. “It’s not hard to imagine that he then breaks into ‘The Fool on the Hill,’” Cloran says.

When it came to choosing a setting for this “As You Like It,” the director took inspiration from its fight scene, in which Orlando vies with a wrestler named Charles. Cloran says he realized that, during the Beatles’s heyday in the 1960s, Vancouver had a burgeoning professional-wrestling scene. Grounding the storytelling in that decade was a no-brainer. He even devised a wrestling pre-show “to really set the world and set the tone,” he says.

But the biggest wrestling challenge for this “As You Like It” is perhaps in the legal realm: The song rights need to be recleared each time the show is staged. And getting the rights to the Beatles is no stroll down Penny Lane. Gaze says it never occurred to him, when he proposed the production’s concept, that it might be easier said than done.

“Ignorantly on my behalf, I thought, ‘We’ll just get the rights to the music,’” Gaze remembers. But that goal turned out to be “extremely complicated,” he says, crediting Bard on the Beach executive director Claire Sakaki with keeping “As You Like It” on its long and winding legal road.

Consultant John Ciccone, a musician and copyright expert based in Toronto, handles music clearances for “As You Like It” and other Bard on the Beach shows through his company Copyright Music & Visuals. “I remember the first call I got from Claire Sakaki,” he says. “She called me and said, ‘Are we out of our minds to even ask you about getting the rights to use Beatles music?’”

Ciccone answered that the task would be pricey and difficult, with many hoops to jump through, understandably, given that the Beatles “changed the face of popular culture forever.” But he added, “It’s not impossible. And if you have nerves of steel to put up with all of that, then try it.”

As an example of that nerve-testing complexity, Ciccone says that for the Washington run he had to work with several entities, including major player Sony Music Publishing, Downtown Music Publishing (administering 50 percent of “Love Me Do,” he says), Universal Music Publishing Group (administering 50 percent of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the United States but 100 percent of it in Canada) and others.

Keeping track of who controls song rights is an ongoing challenge in his line of work. “These things can be bought and sold like pork bellies on the stock market,” Ciccone says. Cloran remembers being astonished when the song rights cleared for the show’s 2018 premiere. “I think we got the rights out of sheer Canadian politeness,” he says.

In the years since that permissions coup, “As You Like It” has romped across stages with different configurations of actors. The show recently had a return engagement at Bard on the Beach, and most of those performers are returning for the Shakespeare Theatre run. (This is not the first melding of the Bard and the Beatles at Shakespeare Theatre. In 2006 the company staged a version of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” centering on a Beatles-like rock group in 1960s India, minus the music.)

Cloran attributes the success of “As You Like It” in large part to its ebullient spirit. “That’s the thing we’re so proud of,” he says. “It’s just a joyous night at the theater.”

As You Like It

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.

Dates: Dec. 2-31.

Prices: $35-$149.

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