Spring/Summer 2014

Conversation Starter

Dream Team

Co-creator of Midsummer Night brings Shakespeare musical adaptation to Suffolk

By Renée Graham

 In Midsummer Night, a loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, fairies become rock stars, capricious magic is found in hallucinogenic drugs, and Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of errors transforms into an over-the-top rock musical. Brendan Milburn, who created the show with his collaborator/wife Valerie Vigoda, attended rehearsals and taught a master class at Suffolk’s Theater Department. The show had its Boston premiere, directed by the University’s Theater Department Chair Marilyn Plotkins, at the Modern Theatre.

The Donkey Show, a disco charged version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has been playing to sold-out audiences for years, and now you’re presenting your musical spin on Shakespeare’s comedy. It was also inspiration for an opera by Benjamin Britten. What is it about this play that seems to lend itself so well to musical interpretations?
I think these characters simply have a lot to sing about, and the situation of those four people lost in the forest, all having been ensorcelled to fall in love with the wrong person, and chasing after each other. That scene in the middle of the play is one of my favorite scenes in all of the literature. It’s just so masterfully constructed and funny and great. It was just begging to be set to music, to me anyway.

How long have you wanted to do something with A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
The second musical I ever wrote was a riff on Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’ve been circling around this structure for a story for a long time. Coming back to Midsummer has been so deliciously satisfying. The language is just so chewy and fun, and the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

How was your experience teaching a master class at Suffolk?
I’ve been delighted by the reception I got here. The faculty in the Theater Department is terrific; the kids I worked with in the master class were charming and, for the most part, fully committed to their performances. They took constructive criticism very well. I’ve been treated like a rock star, which is funny because I’m not. I’m just a guy who writes musicals in his house with his wife.

How challenging is it to find the balance between Shakespeare’s prose and story, and the integration of more modern elements?
We carved away all the stuff that didn’t support the story of those four lovers going crazy in the forest, but there are huge swaths of his material that haven’t been touched at all. In some cases, we just took what was on the page and set his text to music. But in our quest to make a 90-minute musical instead of a two-to-three-hour play, we had to cleave some things away. It’s a modern take on the story. It’s not a direct quote from Shakespeare, but it’s still Shakespeare.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned during your career in music and musical theater?
Ultimately, process is more important than product. If you don’t enjoy the process, there really isn’t any point. I’m lucky and privileged to be able say I write songs for characters to sing, and that’s all I do. I’ve never had a show on Broadway, but I’m getting to write songs for people to sing on stage in the context of a story where each song helps move the story forward. I feel like a kid in a candy store – I love the process.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in musical theatre?
I think tenacity is very important; tenacious people are more likely to succeed than those who are not. Luck is such a huge factor that you need to find a way to keep your-self alive and doing the thing you love until luck finds you. There’s a little bit of a renaissance in musical theater going on, but there’s not room [for everyone] to make a living writing musicals. But what there is, is alternate ways of practicing your art and getting it out there – YouTube, webisodes, even music for video games. If you keep yourself fixed on one outcome it’s likely that outcome will elude you. Tenacity is great, but flexibility is equally important.

Brendan Milburn

About the author: Renée Graham

Renée Graham is the staff writer for Suffolk Alumni Magazine. The veteran Boston Globe journalist has also written for The Miami Herald and Essence magazine.  

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