Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A New Musical Version of Merchant of Venice: Shylock Sings the Blues

Sokol, David. Lyrics. Shylock Sings the Blues. Music by Dennis Willmott. Perf. The Venetians. David-Sokol.com Productions, 2012. CD.

I get—or, rather, Bardfilm gets—a fair number of requests from people wanting their book, DVD, or other project reviewed or their Kickstarter project promoted. I'm often amenable, but I'm also often severely lacking in time. "Send it along," I say, "but I don't know when I'll get to it."

This is one project that I wish I had gotten to earlier. I'm a fan of Shakespeare, and I'm a fan of the blues, but I kept putting off listening to the CD Shylock Sings the Blues that David Sokol sent me.

I shouldn't have.

This CD is astonishing in its vision, its lyrics, and its music. The liner notes invite us to imagine a Merchant of Venice set in the gangster underworld of New Jersey in the 1950s. In it, we have a very sympathetic Shylock—one who doesn't desire revenge for the anti-Semitism he's faced as much as he desires to expose the other characters' hypocrisy. The songs roughly follow the plot of the play, taking us musically inside the minds of most of the main characters.

Honestly, I hope someone picks this album up and produces a full-scale Broadway musical out of it.

The music is well-performed, and the songs are well-sung. There's a rough edge to some of the numbers that is drawn from early blues performances. I hear a fair bit of Robert Johnson in the guitar work, and Etta James seems to be moving through the female vocals. And Big Bill Broonzy's sound is here, too. The music is great.

I also hear something of a song called "Dealin' with the Devil" as performed by James Cotton on the 1995 album Deep in the Blues, but more in terms of some of the themes of the album. One of the strongest pieces on the album is "The Devil Told Me." Not all the songs on the album are narrative in nature, but this one embodies Launcelot Gobbo's monologue about leaving Shylock's service. As such, it contains the anti-Semitism of Launcelot's speech (equating Shylock with the devil, for example) as well as Launcelot's hypocrisy (blaming Shylock for doing wrong while admitting his own wrongdoing).

I received permission to provide that track on this blog as a sample. I've done so by making it the soundtrack to part of the silent 1910 film version of Merchant (for which, q.v.). It seemed entirely appropriate to do so. That clip follows, and it is followed by the song's lyrics (taken from the album's website, but with slight alterations) and Launcelot's speech from Shakespeare's play.

The Devil Told Me

I had a conversation with the devil
It made a lot of sense
He visited me at my house and
that was no coincidence

I had to get out of the hole I was in
The devil said I could rely on him.

About the guy I work for
my conscience said I should stay
[That devil said I should just run away.]
And the angel told me
she said I should stay.

You tell her to shut her mouth
and go away

Yeah but doin’ the wrong thing can bring
so much guilt and shame

The person you wrong is
always the one you should blame

Run away from you
Run as if I flew
Gonna run away from you
Run as if I flew.

Take my advice or you’ll leave in a hearse.

I may be listenin’ to the devil but
What I runnin’ from is worse.

You guys make the money
and you guys got the fame
for all the world's problems
you guys got the blame.
You got greed and avarice
And world control
You got banks and TV and you
you got radio
You got media and expedia
and private jets abound
you got limos and Maseratis
and I take the bus to town.

Run away from you
Run as if I flew.

Oh my daddy told me
He said You will always be a slave.

I am telling you you don't have to behave.

Now I hate you and I love you
And I envy what you got
Your Caddy and your Lincoln
And your sunny beach spot.

You guys make all the money
and you pile it up around
You got the big old house
on the hillside of town.

Run away from you.
Run as if I flew.
Here's Launcelot Gobbo's speech:
Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and tempts me, saying to me, “Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Launcelot,” or “Good Gobbo,” or “Good Launcelot Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away”. My conscience says “No; take heed, honest Launcelot; take heed, honest Gobbo,” or, as aforesaid, “honest Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy heels.” Well, the most courageous fiend bids me pack: “Via!” says the fiend; “away!” says the fiend; “for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,” says the fiend, “and run.” Well, my conscience, hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely to me “My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest man’s son,” or rather an honest woman’s son; for, indeed, my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste; well, my conscience says, “Launcelot, budge not.” “Budge,” says the fiend. “Budge not,” says my conscience. “Conscience,” say I, “you counsel well;” “ Fiend,” say I, “you counsel well.” To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnal; and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run. (II.ii.1-32)
Do yourself a favor and buy this album. It is simply remarkable.

Film clip from Merchant of Venice. Dir. Gerolamo Lo Savio. Perf. Ermete Novelli, Francesca Bertini, and Olga Giannini Novelli. 1910. DVD. Image Entertainment, 2000.

Links: The Album's Official Website.

Another Review of the Album.

Yet Another Review of the Album.

Click below to purchase the album from amazon.com
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest