A Midsummer Night’s Bluegrass

As bluegrass music has become more popular, it has found its way in to a great many places you wouldn’t have expected. It is no longer uncommon to find colleges and universities teaching about the music, or forming ensembles to perform it in public.

This week, Luther College in Decorah, IA, will be presenting a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set to bluegrass music. Most of us in the English-speaking world will have some familiarity with this work, and its tale of fairies and sprites in the forest, a royal wedding, and a classic play-within-the-play. Surely one of Shakespeare’s most popular pieces, and certainly his best known comedy, it is still widely staged all over the world.

In the 400 years between the writing of this play and the modern day, the various works of William Shakespeare have been adapted in every imaginable way, from faithful recreations of the original Globe Theatre productions, to variants so tortured and deprived of anything authentically Shakespearean as to be unrecognizable. And still, the Bard lives on.

Many previous musical adaptations have been created, from an early 19th century Felix Mendelssohn overture inspired by the play, to an opera by Benjamin Britten in 1960, and a disco-opera in the late ’90s.

The new music for the bluegrass version has been composed by Colin Cosgrove, a junior music major at Luther, who was contacted by Dr. Robert Vrtis in the Theatre Department for this purpose. Together with a group of student grassers, they have created a musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which runs this weekend on campus.

The Theater Department created this video to offer the flavor of the production.

As college theater, you likely won’t be surprised that questions of gender are the aspect of the play that gets primary attention, as Colin shared in the production notes he provided for the program.

“This experience taught me first and foremost that my innate ability for doing what I’m told is utterly useless when engaging in projects that render any amount of artistic liberty. The result? I had to rely on other innate traits when it came to writing the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For better or for worse, a devout passion for bluegrass music happens to be inherent in my existence. Throughout the writing process I gave thought to how the Midsummer cast was using an artistic medium (a Shakespeare play) to break the very stereotypes about gender and sexuality that Shakespeare adheres to in many ways. In addition to creating a rip-roarin’, partner-swingin’, yee-hawin’, etc. collection of tunes, one of my main goals in writing for this play was to use a traditionally man-centered genre of music to advocate for gender equity. I hope that you can catch some of these ideas in the music, though most are buried deep in aphorisms that came directly from my own dreams. A special shout-out to both the ragtag band of competent musicians who dedicated a portion of their lives to learning someone else’s original bluegrass songs, and to the band roadie, Ana López. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the musical influence and memory of my father, Dennis Cosgrove, who, if he was here today, would undoubtedly have a thing or two to say about my banjo-playing.”

You can hear some other rehearsal recordings from the show at soundcloud.

Luther College is located in northeastern Iowa, near the border with Minnesota. Their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream finishes up this weekend, with shows Thursday and Friday evenings, and Saturday afternoon. Tickets are available online or at the door.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.