Shylock Sings The Blues
BluesWax Rating: Concept: 8 out of 10, Execution: 4 out of 10
To Blues Or Not To Blues
I was absolutely intrigued by the synopsis of this CD when I was choosing new music to review. This was a project to make a musical out of The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. Yes, that Shakespeare. And the music wasblues. My first thought was that this CD would be brilliant or hideous. I was wrong. It is neither.
It attempts to convey all the drama of The Merchant of Venice set to a genre of music that should suit it perfectly. But it doesn’t work as musical theatre or as blues music.
The brainchild of artist, lyricist, and psychology professor David Sokol of Vermont, Shylock Sings The Blues is nothing if not ambitious. The story of Shakespeare’s play revolves around a Christian merchant of Venice, Antonio, and his dealings with a Jewish money lender (in the 16th century Christians were forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church’s usury laws to lend money – or rather to make money on lending money – so it was left to non-Christians to fulfill this role. The lenders were predominantly Jewish with Christian merchants being their biggest customers).
Shylock is a Jewish moneylender whose name has become synonymous with someone who loans money at exorbitant interest rates. Indeed, the term “a pound of flesh” originated with Shylock, who lends money to the anti-Semitic Antonio only after Antonio agrees that “a pound of [his] flesh” will be security on the loan. When Antonio’s ships are lost at sea he is unable to repay the loan. Shylock demands payment, determined to exact revenge for Antonio’s anti-Semitism. He is prevented from collecting his debt by the machinations of the beautiful and smart Portia who gets the courts to agree that the “pound of flesh” does not include blood so if Shylock takes any blood while cutting away Antonio’s flesh, he will be in breach of the contract. Ultimately, Shylock is stripped of all his material wealth and is treated horribly by the smug Venetians.
Sokol re-imagines this story and updates it to New Jersey in the 1950s. The merchants of Venice are now the Mafia of Jersey. There are various subplots involving Shylock’s daughter running away with a Christian and Portia who must choose a husband, although in this version, she says only that she wants to take a lover. In one interesting twist, Sokol has taken Antonio’s latent homosexuality that Willy the Shake alluded to and makes it clear that Antonio has a burning desire for Bassani,o who plays on this ardor to get ahead.
At least, that’s what it says in the notes in the accompanying booklet. The notes also discuss the yearning torch song written as a duet for Bassanio and Antonio. But, and this is a big “but,” the booklet explains that on the actual recording the part of Bassanio will be sung by a woman. This is the first major disappointment. Here’s the thing: If you are going to make a bold interpretation like this, then stick to it. Why have the song sung by a man and a woman? It’s a cop out and diminishes the artistic credibility or the entire work.
Just another couple of thoughts on the theatrical/dramatic aspects of the project before I get into the music itself.
At the end of Shakespeare’s play, Shylock is utterly defeated. You can interpret his defeat as being caused by deceitful, anti-Semitic Christians who once again conspire to put Jews down. Or you can interpret it as Shylock being betrayed by his all-consuming hatred of and desire for revenge against the Christians. If you subscribe to the former, the pathos is deeply moving and gives the play its final resonance. If you subscribe to the latter, you can see Shylock’s fatal flaw as universal truth that we are all responsible for our own tragedies. (In Shakespeare’s time, a significant part of the audience would have thought the Jew got what he deserved, but surely we have progressed beyond mindless anti-Semitism. Right?)
Either way, the play’s ending provides a dramatic conclusion in the best traditions of Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, but in this interpretation, Shylock loses everything and decides that by accepting his fate he has transcended the hatred the Christians have for him and his fellow Jews.
According to the liner notes: “The crowd is slack-jawed and confused as Shylock walks proudly out of the truck depot.”
Confused? I should think so. This simply does not ring true – not in Shakespeare’s play, certainly, but also in this interpretation. It grants nobility to oppression, but there is nothing noble about being despised, harassed, dispossessed, beaten, and murdered for centuries.
More to the point, Shylock’s “Hey, I’m okay with that” attitude is weak drama and bad theatre. It has all the gravitas of Britney Spears’s “Oops, I Did It Again.” If he takes it so lightly, there is no reason for the audience to be invested either.
Which leads us to the music.
I really thought there was an opportunity for this to soar, musically. The Merchant of Venice deals with all the human emotions that blues music has embodied since the beginning: love, lust, rebellion, oppression, racism, and money. I was salivating in anticipation. But my mouth soon went dry.
The music is so light as to be wisps of smoke in the wind. Where is Shylock’s anger? When he takes the contract, it is to a nice country-blues slide guitar, but the arrangement and the vocals are too weak to create dramatic tension. It does not reflect the underlying mistrust and dislike between the two solitudes.
The play seethes with undercurrents and unspoken menace. That Sokol, at some level, recognizes this is evident in his setting the play among “goodfellas” – a culture where there is a constant threat of violence. The music should have that underlying energy in all its songs, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the situation. But it must have drama. Ultimately, that’s where this recording fails.
The songs themselves are light and they are not helped by the performances. Most of the voices on this CD do not have the depth or expressiveness to convey the emotions of the songs or the play. Shylock, in particular, conveys no anger, no resentment. There is nothing in his voice that makes us feel that he is carrying the yoke of Christian hatred. This is the one character that needed a “voice.” Instead, it gets an average singer who can’t pull it off.
The other voices are all equally forgettable, unfortunately. They’re not terrible, they’re just not very exciting.
Except for one.
Nicole Nelson alone seems to understand how to imbue real emotion into the songs she is given to sing. Her work on “The Mercy Song” (a very clever gospel-infused song that works well) is excellent. But her real tour de force is on the best song on the CD (and one that works as a stand-alone jazz/blues tune), “Gold and Silver Boxes and a Box Made of Lead.” You can hear her lustful desire in every syllable.
But where composer Dennis Willmott succeeds on these two songs, he utterly fails on the penultimate song in this work,” Done With All My Ragin’.” This is where Shylock sings his acceptance of his brutal treatment. There is no angst, no sense of revelation or epiphany. It’s a cheesy country-western tune with all the depth of “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With Lovin’ On Your Mind .” Perhaps it is fitting that such a banal denouement should be accompanied by an equally banal song. The Merchant Of Venice deserves a much better end, musically and dramatically.
I applaud Mr. Sokol for his vision in attempting this ambitious piece of theatre. I strongly suggest he start again with a new composer who can write better blues songs and better musical theatre songs. Keep Ms. Nelson and recast every other voice. Replace or rework “ove Is Beautiful,” “Jessica’s Song,” and “Done With All My Ragin’” – no, don’t rework this one. Kill it and start fresh. And for crying out loud, have “Some Men Want A Woman” sung by Antonio and Bassanio or abandon the gay theme entirely.
Kim O’Brien is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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