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How Shaina Taub turned As You Like It into a 200-person musical
It all started two years ago when composer and performer Shaina Taub got a text message from a number she didn't recognize. It was Lear deBessonet, the founder of the Public Theater's Public Works program, which produces large-scale, musicalized mountings of classic plays starring showbiz pros alongside civilians. DeBessonet wanted to see about working together. "I called her immediately," Taub says. "That text message changed my life."
Taub's first Public Works collaboration was 2016's Twelfth Night at Central Park's Delacorte Theater, for which she both wrote the songs and appeared on stage. She performs those same duties for this year's As You Like It, which runs September 1 to 5 at the Delacorte and, like the Public's Shakespeare in the Park productions, is free. The cast is massive, numbering around 200, a mix of amateurs and professionals including Broadway regulars Rebecca Naomi Jones, Darius de Haas, and Joel Perez. Public Works' director, Laurie Woolery, directs, and helped Taub transform Shakespeare's three-hour comedy about the nature of love into a 90-minute musical. "There's, like, 21 songs including reprises," says Taub, who's been composing "a song a week, since January, more or less. It's brutal."
But it's also a joy for Taub who has been a fan of Public Works since its inception in 2013. In fact she loves the program so much she says it's "ruined me! I get to write for 200 voices. And now I'm also ruined every time I see a Shakespeare play, I'm just Public Works-izing it in my mind."
So how does one "Public Works-ize" Shakespeare? Well, first you have to turn the text into a musical by "taking each scene, picking out the big song moments, and figuring out which things want to be sung which things want to be spoken," explains Taub. Then it's time to think in terms of scale: how do you fit 200 people on that stage and make it feel like they belong there?
The solution: creative license. As You Like It begins with Duke Senior, Rosalind's father, being exiled into the forest of Arden by his brother Duke Frederick. "In the actual play, he gets banished with a few lords, it's usually him and four guys out there," says Taub. "We were like, 'What if [Frederick] banishes not only Duke Senior, but kind of anyone associated with him in the citizenry? So there's actually hundreds of people in the Forest of Arden, living there in exile together, and they have formed a whole community."
Every Public Works production also features a handful of "cameo" performances by community arts groups. This year's participants include the Harambee Dance Company, the Sing Harlem Choir, and the Bronx Wrestling Federation. If you're wondering how the latter could possibly fit in, As You Like It actually features a wrestling match between Charles and Rosalind's suitor Orlando which, for this version, has been turned into a colorful lucha libre bout. The Public Works team calls these community troupes "virtuosic nonprofessionals," says Taub. "Whatever the specialty skill is, it's still not their full-time career, but they are excellent at what they do."
Taub was careful to keep the diversity of the Public Works players in mind when writing the songs, incorporating a wide variety of styles including South African choral, Latin rhythms, and boy-band angst. "Orlando posts love notes all over the forest to Rosalind and, in the original play, they were cheesy love poems," says Taub. In this production, he has a boy band called Orlando and de Boys, and he sings a ballad about Rosalind that would make One Direction proud. "You want to empathize with him, but you still cringe a little bit," Taub says, chuckling.
In addition to composing the score, Taub plays Jaques (there's lots of gender-bending in this incarnation), who has the play's best known monologue: "All the world's a stage." Taub won't be alone when she delivers those words and, instead of a speech, it will be a song "that lets us really experience the full breadth of humanity, from the 5-year olds to the 85-year olds we have in our show," she says.
Showcasing "the full breadth of humanity" is also an apt description of Public Works' mission, which is the reason Taub fell for the program in the first place and why it helps keep her optimistic in today's divisive times. "As Shakespeare wrote, theatre holds a 'mirror up to nature,'" she says. "And I always feel like Public Works also holds a mirror up to nature, but reflecting, in the best possible light, humanity at its most inclusive, its most accepting, its most loving, its most collectively celebratory. And in doing so it poses a question to everyone who witnesses it: What if the world could be that way?"
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Top image: Jose Llana and Nikki M. James and the company of Public Works' Twelfth Night in 2016. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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