For the first time in its history, the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis will incorporate live music into its performances -- original, locally composed music at that! The dozen or so songs and snippets that made the final cut come from the minds behind Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, the small ensemble well known in town for composing and performing its own scores to silent films.
This spring, the R&P MPO takes a siesta from accompanying the silver screen to take on the Shakespeare Fest's main stage in Forest Park during the season's production of Twelfth Night. Grab a blanket, join fellow groundlings in the pit and look closely -- you'll be able to spot the R&P's Brien Seyle as an extra on the stage during each performance, expertly playing tunes on his violin alongside actors specifically cast because they, too, can hold their own on various stringed instruments (plus a flute).
For the uninitiated (don't worry, we don't remember much from our high school English classes either), Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night includes themes of gender and role reversal, lots of falling in love and perhaps most prominently, an emphasis on music and whimsy from start to finish.
When asked how working in a theatre environment for the first time compares to composing for films, Matt Pace of R&P says, "I'm having a blast and would totally do it again. We write music and adjust it to go with the scenes, so it's not that different from what we usually do."
"It's pretty natural for what the Rats and People do, which is to use music to push narrative," says Seyle. "Theatre was a natural next step."
What began as a would-be live orchestra pit evolved into the idea of having songs performed directly in the play's world (featuring an impressive 20 foot tall moon) by the cast on stage. Since last September, Seyle and Pace worked with director Rick Dildine to develop their music along with his multi-genre ideals.
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"One way Rick uses music in the show is to orient us in this magical 'anywhere' which is where the play takes place," says Seyle. "We made music that's not too specific to any one thing, one country, time or tradition... We ended up with a pretty general Euro-folk sound -- happy tunes, mostly."
On a cool evening in Shakespeare Glen, Seyle takes a break before suiting up for a dress rehearsal while Pace, an adjunct college music professor that just started his summer break, relaxes in a lawn seat.
"I made what I think is my last adjustment yesterday, so my job is done," says Pace, who spent a lot of late nights corresponding with the artistic team and performers to achieve a final product. "I'm looking forward to hearing people hum the tunes. Rick told us to write music people will be humming on their way out."
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night kicks off with the line, "If music be the food of love, play on."
You heard the man. Play on, Rats and People!
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' production of Twelfth Night runs from May 24 through June 16 every night at 8 p.m. except for Tuesdays. Admission is free and the performance is open to the public. Get details online via the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' website.
And while you're at it, stay tuned for the R&P MPO's upcoming record release, Revue Songs on June 29 at Off Broadway. It's the group's first official physical release, and it's going straight onto 10-inch vinyl. Keep up with the R&P via this Facebook page.