A classic Shakespearean tragedy put to rock ‘n’ roll has given rise to moments of restorative joy to the Canadian composer witnessing its rebirth after 45 years.
First launched in 1974, Kronborg: the Hamlet Rock Musical, has been remounted at the Confederation Centre of the Arts for a three-week run this summer.
The Charlottetown Festival show remains a tale of a prince’s descent into despair and a family torn apart by vengeance and violence.
Yet, for its creator, Cliff Jones – now in his 70s – the musical reorchestration by the festival’s music director Craig Fair has been a physical and emotional tonic he never expected.
Emerging from hospital after a life-threatening bout of Legionnaires’ disease “as low and depressed as a person could be,” Jones recalled in an interview how he retreated to his cottage on the Island more than three years ago.
Weeks later, the Charlottetown Festival’s artistic director told him he wanted to attempt a single showing of the play at a summer festival, and the tides of Jones’s life turned.
“That woke me up, raised me up and I felt like life was worth living again. It took me out of the depression after the Legionnaires’ disease and I marched forward,” Jones said.
His original production – first written in just two weeks on a pink piano during a break between CBC contracts – had “reared its head again” after prior revivals under different names, first as a reworked version on Broadway, and then for an award-winning run of more than 18 months in Santa Monica, Calif.
The festival associate director, Mary Francis Moore, also sees fortuities in the musical’s Canadian rebirth.
She was handed the original, mouldy script so congealed she had to steam its pages apart. Shortly afterward, she happened upon one of the few recordings of the New York version in a St. John’s second-hand record shop.
“I just thought it was amazing how he [Jones] could take something with as intense and intricate a plot as Hamlet and put it to music and make it understandable and accessible,” she recalled during an interview.
Then came the well-received revival in the warm acoustics of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church at the Island’s Indian River Festival, and more signs the play was destined for fresh life.
As Aaron Hastelow, who plays Hamlet, sang the signature tune, light burst through the east-facing stained glass windows, bathing the Island-raised actor in a warm glow.
“If we were looking for a moment we should be bringing this play back to life, that was the sign,” Moore said.
Moore, Fair and Jones workshopped the show over the next year to become this summer’s remounting.
The end product has retained Hamlet’s timeless struggle over how to react in the wake of the “murder most foul” of his father.
As in the original play, Hamlet’s friends Horatio and Marcellus lead him to the ghost demanding revenge in a misty forest nearby – and the young prince goes on to question at times whether life is even worth living as he struggles over how to react.
But in this version, the story shifts into kaleidoscopic motion through choreography by Robin Calvert of Toronto and amid the scenic design from Brian Smith of Ottawa and the costumes of Jeff Chief, a Plains Cree designer from Saskatchewan.
The result is a mix of sombre moments alongside swirls of brilliant colours as the ensemble dances across a stage of shifting hues. All of this is cast against a castle backdrop that transforms into interior scenes.
Rather than putting the players in a series of Elizabethan robes, Moore asked designers for a “contemporary but timeless feel,” sending them to peruse websites depicting Copenhagen’s “Nordic fashion week” to create tailored wool coats and fitted waistlines.
In rock opera fashion, the opening is an overture that revolves around the silver goblet that contains the poison that ends it all.
Some of the most famous phrases of Hamlet’s soliloquies recur in the musical, including Hamlet’s sense of disgust in Act 1 over his mother’s marriage to his uncle Claudius, in a tune titled That it should come to this.
Jones’ colloquial lyrics continue to capture the underlying theme of the young prince’s frustration, as Hastelow sings, “Couldn’t you leave the world the way it was?”
Similarly, Gertrude, played by Alana Hibbert, sings of the despair of a queen’s unravelling fate, using Jones’ phrase: “Somebody wrote the wrong words to my song.”
As for the phrase, “To be or not to be,” expect an entirely different version that captures Shakespeare’s essential thoughts.
The festival draws from a Canada-wide selection of musical theatre regulars, with Michael Torontow of Ottawa playing Hamlet’s uncle Polonius; Cameron MacDuffee of Palgrave, Ont., playing Claudius, and Kimberly-Ann Truong, from Prince Rupert, B.C., playing Ophelia.
As it entered its second week, Jones and Moore said audience members who recalled seeing the musical in younger years have returned to Charlottetown for a second look.
However, the production – including the costly orchestration, design and choreography – is only set to last until July 20, and some tickets remain unsold.
Will this be the final rebirth of Jones’ creation?
Jones admits to not quite knowing what will occur, recalling that what began as an impromptu commission has unexpectedly “come to be a significant part of my life.”
Moore says times and idioms change, but key themes of life remain for theatre to interpret in ways never imagined.
“It’s why I love it, because you just never know, from one day to the next, what could happen,” she says.