|La Jolla Playhouse's The Nightingale|
This season La Jolla Playhouse is offering an exciting new musical, The Nightingale. This compelling contemporary musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale tells the story of a young emperor in ancient China, whose luxurious but constricted life inside the walls of the Forbidden City is upended by the song of an extraordinary bird.
The Original Story
In the deep, dark forests surrounding the outer gardens of the Forbidden City, there lived a little nightingale. The nightingale sang happily each day and made the most beautiful music of any creature in the forest. After learning of the nightingale's existence, the emperor orders the bird to be brought to him. After much searching, the songbird is found and convinced to return to the palace to sing for the emperor. The bird’s singing easily captivates the emperor, bringing tears to his eyes.
One day the emperor receives a gift: a mechanical bird covered in dazzling diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. The new bird looked far more beautiful than the non-descript gray nightingale, and sang a tune anyone could learn. Unable to sing a duet with the wind-up bird, the nightingale is banished from the palace, and the mechanical bird is placed on a silk cushion close to the emperor’s bed.
As happens with things man-made, the bird eventually breaks down and can only be played once a year.
Years later the emperor becomes ill and wakes to finding Death waiting to take him, as the voices of the emperor’s good and bad deeds come back to haunt and taunt him.
“I know nothing about it,” moaned the emperor. “Music! Music!” he cried; “The large Chinese drum that I may not hear what they say.” But the voices still went on. “Music! Music!” the emperor cried again. “You little precious golden bird, sing, pray sing! I have given you gold and costly presents; I have even hung my golden slipper round your neck. Sing! sing!” But the bird remained silent.
Suddenly through the open window came the sound of sweet music. Outside, on the bough of a tree, sat the living nightingale. She had heard of the emperor’s illness, and had come to sing to him of hope and trust. And as she sung, the shadows receded, and the blood in the emperor’s veins flowed more easily, giving life to his weak limbs. Even Death himself listened, and said, “Go on, little nightingale, go on.”
Eventually the song of the nightingale entices Death to go seek his garden and the grateful emperor is restored to health, finally learning the difference between music and noise.
Thou was’t not born for death, immortal Bird!
Though the nightingale’s non-descript, gray appearance has earned it the adjective “common,” its song is anything but: it encompasses a startling collection of over 250 variations, and in contrast to other birds, can be heard all throughout the night.
Indigenous to Europe, Asia and Africa, the nightingale has served as a muse for many artists. In addition to Keats, the nightingale has been referenced by Aristophanes, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Eliot and many others. Its song is varied enough to lend itself to a host of interpretations; some artists hear a lament, others associate it with love, rebirth, or divinity.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Nightingale, the emperor becomes enamored of a mechanical nightingale over the real thing, setting up a literal and metaphorical conflict between nature and man-made creations. But poetry is littered with examples of man’s works fading into dust (such as the arrogant monument laid to waste by time in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandius), while Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale reminds us that the nightingale’s song—having inspired poets for thousands of years—remains immortal.
The Nightingale: The Musical
With soaring music by Grammy- and Tony Award-winning pop composer/musician Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Tony and Grammy Award winner Steven Sater, and direction by Playhouse favorite Moisés Kaufman, The Nightingale will captivate audiences with its poetic pop sensibility, while engaging them in the process of creating a brand new work.
“The Nightingale is a vibrant new musical project from a creative dream team with deep roots at the Playhouse,” said Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley. “Giving them this opportunity to develop their work as part of our Page To Stage program once again demonstrates our commitment to serve as a home for artists to create new work in an unfettered, nurturing environment.”
Now in its eleventh year, Page To Stage is La Jolla Playhouse's signature program for the development of new work that gives audiences the chance to experience the genesis of a play. Throughout the rehearsals and run of the show, the playwright and director make constant changes in response to audience reactions and feedback. Every performance is different from the previous one; every audience experiences a different show—and Playhouse patrons play a vital role in how the show evolves from its first performance to its last, and beyond. Following the Page To Stage run in the Potiker Theatre, the creative team will take what they've learned from their time at the Playhouse to the next step of the show's developmental journey.
The Nightingale will run at La Jolla Playhouse from July 10 through August 5.
Birds of a Feather...
The Nightingale creative team (L-R): Duncan Sheik (music), Moisés Kaufman (direction) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics); photo by Dana Holliday.
|The Nightingale's writing team, Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music), talks with literary director Gabriel Greene about the origins of their new musical and how Hans Christian Andersen predicted the modern music industry more than 150 years ago.|
GG: What makes your artistic partnership so fulfilling?
Steven Sater: Duncan is like the partner of my creative heart. There’s something almost mystic about my bond and my relationship to him. The first lyrics I ever wrote were for Duncan. I never envisioned myself writing lyrics, actually; I never watched musicals and thought, “Wow, I wish I were writing this.” It all happened, really, because I met him, and we began writing songs together.
Duncan Sheik: On a deeper level, we’re both practicing Buddhists and we share a similar kind of worldview, a similar view of the human condition. And I think we certainly have the same sense of melancholy and macabre sense of humor. So sometimes that comes out in subtle ways in the things that we’re working on.
On a practical level, Steven and I are very similar in that we both like to write privately. We both like to get our information from our creative partners and then go off into a room by ourselves and come up with something,
GG: What drew you both to “The Nightingale”?
DS: Well, Steven said he liked the story. (laughter) We had already been working on Spring Awakening for a year and a half or two years at this point, and he gave me the original [Hans Christian Andersen] version and said, “Read this, I think there’s something really interesting in here.”
SS: James Joyce always said he didn’t really have an imagination, he had a memory. I understand that feeling.
I tend to draw from a deep cloth of memories, of a culture. I believe in story. I’m a person who comes from literature, and I really believe I am who I am because of the books I’ve spent time with. There was a moment in my young son’s life when I was reading him Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” As I read him the scene of Death confronting the aged emperor, I watched my son just…it’s like I watched him hit “zero at the bone,” to quote a poem by Emily Dickinson. He had a moment of real revelation: that the hero could die, that a story could end unhappily.
Beyond that, I felt I could already hear Duncan’s music in the tale. The Nightingale itself involves music; music is the heart of the story. So, the choice was from instinct, and everything’s opened up from there.
DS: Funnily enough, in my first reading of the tale, I felt an almost prescient allegory about the music business, because it’s about this bird that sings this beautiful, natural song and it gets replaced by a mechanical bird that sings the same song over and over again. And I was like, “Oh my god, Hans Christian Andersen figured out what was going to happen with the music business!” (laughter) The Emperor likes the single so much he doesn’t seem to listen to anything else the bird sings. I’ve had that problem too.
GG: The Nightingale has a main character who rebels against the restrictions imposed on him by authority figures. Does that theme resonate with you?
DS: Yeah, I think that’s one of the central themes of this period of western civilization. Here we are in 2012 with “Occupy Wall Street;” the French Revolution could have been called “Occupy Versailles.” Growing up in the context of a relatively privileged, white male, western civilization place, you want to say, “There is some imbalance of power that needs to be addressed; an abuse of power that needs to be exposed.” Not that we’re being super political or anything, but it’s just a reality of our civilization. And it’s been around for a really long time.
SS: Another element that drew me to The Nightingale was the regret. The original tale is about both longing and regret. Longing to restore the thing you’ve lost. Struggling, in the face of death, to make amends for all you’ve done. In the original story, there is only an aged emperor, and we follow what happens to him when he hears the song of a common bird. I always felt ours should be a full-length musical, but it didn’t seem like there was enough story [from Andersen’s version] without creating a youthful hero as well. With the young emperor, I could open up a journey: a love story; I could expand on political and social themes. It appealed to me to create a story which uses the older emperor as a framing device, and within that frame it only made sense that the younger emperor would be a rebel. That he could rebel against “a system,” and would later regret not going further than he had.
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