Howard Goodall on composing A Winter's Tale

  • Posted on 15 November 2012 at 9:00am
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I have wanted to adapt Shakespeare’s beautiful late play The Winter’s Tale for many years. There are several reasons for this. Whilst it’s not as overtly ‘magical’ as The Tempest (which Shakespeare wrote at roughly the same time) it has its own very special brand of magic in it, especially the final scene, in which like Mozart’s inspirational opera Don Giovanni, a statue apparently comes to life, transforming all who witness the miracle.

What composer wouldn’t want to have their own stab at such a moment of theatre and emotional awakening?

The play’s story, though it appears at first to be about paranoia and power, unfolds into a parable about the redemptive gift of youth: indeed, the piece was commissioned for the opening of The Sage, Gateshead in 2005, to be performed by 30 or so local young people with a band of musicians from the many traditions and genres represented by the Music Education Centre based in that building: folk & classical instruments, as well as steel pans were brought together for the Winter’s Tale orchestra in that first production, directed by Nick Stimson, my collaborator on the book.

Shakespeare was about my age when he wrote his play and from its optimistic themes we can deduce that he had an unusually modern philosophy of life, believing that the young should marry for love, that the social divisions caused by wealth, politics or nationality were artificial and often cruel. There is one song in particular in the musical, The same sun shines, which expresses, more or less, my guiding principle in life: that we are all equally worthy of respect and deserving of love whatever our upbringing. It originates in Perdita’s speech about the Bohemian King Polixenes, “I was about to speake, and tell him plainely, The selfe-same Sun, that shines vpon his Court, Hides not his visage from our Cottage, but Lookes on alike“. For me, this is the heart of the whole tale – that the hierarchies of class are meaningless and destructive and that the young, for a glorious window of opportunity, are capable of seeing this more clearly than all of us.

A Winter’s Tale is my own personal favourite of all my musicals and, as with The Hired Man, I am my own lyricist. It is an unashamedly emotional story. Because the plot is neatly divided into two distinct acts, 16 years apart, in different countries and very different worlds, I enjoyed exploring the musical styles in the two different sections: Act One is in a dark, brooding place, full of anguish and violent passions, with much layering of voices and interweaving lines to give the impression of a near-totalitarian society and its conspiratorial, whispering court. By contrast, Act Two bathes in sunshine, rural simplicity and the possibility of redemption. In the revised version you see tonight, re-shaped with the fresh collaborative voice of Andrew Keates, we have developed the piece further on its journey, coming closer than before to Shakespeare’s play: after all, as Stephen Sondheim once wisely quipped, ‘musicals are not so much written as re-written’.