The Beatles have been the soundtrack of our summer here at Bard on the Beach! It’s been such a thrill to bring Daryl Cloran’s funny, heartfelt, and joyous adaptation of As You Like It back to our BMO Mainstage this Season – and to see the music of the show sweeping both new and returning audience members off their feet.
We were lucky enough to speak with Ben Elliott, the Musical Director of As You Like It, to find out more about what went into the music of the production. Read to learn more about Ben’s experience so far this Season, why he thinks the Beatles works so well with Shakespeare’s story, and, of course, his incredible dance moves as Silvius!
You were also the Musical Director and an actor in the original 2018 production of As You Like It. What was it like for you to return to this production five years later?
It was all the things: exhilarating, rewarding, challenging, and incredibly fun. Since it had been five years (and a pandemic) since I’d worked at Bard and treaded the boards, I was reminded of how demanding this contract is. We’re there 10am – 6pm, six days a week, and on top of that I was also musical directing. So for the first little while it was all about building back the stamina. However, once I found the rhythm (pun intended), it was an absolute blast returning to Bard to bring this production to life on its home turf.
What do you think it is about the Beatles that makes their music work so well with this story?
There are three reasons that come to mind: the first being that Daryl Cloran, the director and creator of this adaptation, meticulously combed through the Beatles’ repertoire and Shakespeare’s play to find the perfect song for its specific moment in the show. The second reason is that in doing so, Daryl discovered that the Beatles’ musical evolution and the evolving themes of As You Like It are naturally synchronous. For example, early in the show, we’re dealing with the vibrancy of young love, a very common theme in the early songs of the Beatles, and then as we move to the forest, Shakespeare takes on more philosophical themes like mortality, loneliness, compassion, and doubt, which again are themes that the Beatles explored later in their time together. The third point to be made here is that it was really important to us, as we built the show, that the songs continue to drive the action. That way the story remains the focus and the stakes and momentum of the action continue to build and grow as we witness the characters, through song, pursue their goals, whether that’s expressing their love, working through a problem, comforting someone, etc. I love when the plot doesn’t stop! The best compliment is when someone says “It’s as if the Beatles wrote the songs for the show!”
How did you approach the creative process in terms of balancing your roles as Musical Director & Supervisor and as Silvius/Forest Lord/Keyboards?
Most of it’s about triage. What needs my attention right now? Is the song working? Great. I’ll focus on my acting responsibilities. Do I know my lines? No… I’ll make sure to work on them! It also helps that my character, Silvius, isn’t on stage for the entire show. I mean, I am, but Silvius isn’t. So, whenever we weren’t working my scenes, I focused on the music. However, I sometimes had to wear both hats at the same time, or switch hats super quick. For example, I’d be on stage, rehearsing a scene as Silvius, and I’d notice something in the music that needed attention. When we stopped, I’d have to switch out of actor mode and into Musical Director mode. It was in those moments that I felt the most gratitude for my fellow Company members. I’m eternally grateful for their poise and grace as a fellow actor gave them notes (albeit about the music). I love both music and acting and so, even though it’s challenging to carry both responsibilities, it’s extremely fulfilling. I owe a lot of the success of being able to pull it off to my amazing castmates.
What was it like working with a group of musicians who are also actors?
The best! The truth is, everyone in the cast is a musician to varying degrees. Everyone has to at least carry a tune and dance. In my books, if you can do that, you’re a musician. On the other hand, not all our musicians are actors (or were). Two of the band members, Sally Zori and Isaiah Terrell-Dobbs, had minimal to no acting experience (let alone Shakespearean acting experience) when they signed onto the show. However, I invite you to spot the “non-actors” in the band. You’ll be hard-pressed to find them. These incredible artists commit to their roles every show. I know I speak for all of us when I say a highlight of the Season was witnessing Sally go on to fulfill their understudy responsibilities as William and Jacques De Boys and nail it. Every. Time.
You have some incredible choreography as Silvius. What went into that number in terms of the music and choreography, and what has it been like to perform it on stage this summer?
Jonathan Hawley Purvis is not from planet Earth. The guy not only choreographed all the numbers in As You Like It but also all the wrestling AND all the fight choreography in Julius Caesar and Henry V. That’s not human. But back to the question: what went into choreographing my numbers? A lot of patience from Jono and sweat from Ben. But seriously, he’s so skilled at building choreography that both suits the performer’s abilities and also expands upon their skills. For example, in the first 2018 production we did of As You Like It, we built in a piano solo that I, as Silvius, performed in I Saw Her Standing There. I finish a verse and then scurry behind the piano and shred! However, when we had the good fortune to produce the show in Winnipeg and Edmonton the following year, the performer who played Silvius wasn’t a piano player. So Jono and I (as musical supervisor) collaborated on creating the replacement to the piano solo, the “Ham-Bone” solo that Silvius now does. You know the one. The one where he hits himself in the touchstones?… Anyway, there’s an example of how Jono works – he’s brilliant and will adapt the choreography to the performer while still bringing that high level of awesomeness. Oh, and what’s it like to perform it on stage this summer? It’s a carnival ride: it’s fun, exhilarating, and something I’d only want to do maybe twice in a day 😉
Do you have a favourite memory so far from this Season?
Something happened in a show recently that blew my mind. In the moment when Amiens forgets the words to While My Guitar Gently Weeps and pauses (i.e. “I look at the floor, and I see it needs…”). What usually happens is that after a couple seconds, an audience member helps us out and says “sweeping!” and we get on with the number. This time, the WHOLE AUDIENCE said “SWEEPING!” But they didn’t just say it, they sang it. I’ll never forget it.
Thanks so much to Ben for chatting with us and for giving us a glimpse into what went on behind the scenes to bring the music of As You Like It to life!
If you haven’t already, be sure to catch Ben and the rest of our Mainstage Company in As You Like It on the BMO Mainstage. Don’t wait – only a limited number of performances remain. Get your tickets now!
Plus, did you know that you can enjoy the music of As You Like It from your own device? Get excited about your upcoming performance or relive the magic of the show with our As You Like It Spotify playlist! Check it out below.
Special thanks to VCAD for their support as Bard’s Season Music Sponsor.