Matthew M. Nielson on bringing Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ into the 1970s through original music and sound design

Bright and jaunty as a hippie’s tie-dyed shirt, the opening musical number for Folger’s The Merry Wives of Windsor lets the audience know what’s in store. It’s a farce set long ago–well, 1972, to be exact. How can I write that?

Brian Mani in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.' Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Brian Mani in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Here are a few lyrics from the hippy-dippy original musical number, introducing director Aaron Posner’s concept for William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives.

Please do not fear, dear/Although it’s Shakespeare/There’s no King Lear here/This one’s more fun…Everything is new/It’s nineteen seventy-two/And life’s just life/Or so the poets say. 

As my DCMTA colleague Andrew White wrote in his review for The Merry Wives of Windsor, “You cannot unsee this stuff, any more than you can un-hear Matthew Nielson’s pitch-perfect music and sound design.”

So let’s take a deeper dive into multi-Helen Hayes Award recipient Nielson’s work.

David Siegel: How did the opening number “So This Is Windsor” for The Merry Wives of Windsor happen?  

Matthew M. Nielson: In one of the earliest conversations [between Aaron and I] about Merry Wives, we tossed around this idea of setting it in the early ’70s, and treating it like an early ’70s sitcom, a la The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family. We joked around about even doing an opening theme song…but once we stopped laughing about that idea we started talking more seriously about it. I loved the idea of introducing the show and characters with a song so much. So Aaron and I began the process of writing that song. I dove in to research, which was mostly listening to early ’70s songs and figuring out what they have that we identify as that “’70s sound” today. Aaron sent me a draft of lyrics, and I started to shape the song musically around his lyrics. I love this kind of collaborative process. That first version of the chorus was fairly close to where we ended up in the final version, but the verses went through many, many drastic changes to get to the final version.

Matthew M. Nielson. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Matthew M. Nielson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I think we ended up with a wonderful, catchy, very tongue-in-cheek, very ’70s-sounding song that does a great job at setting us in a specific place and time while not taking itself too seriously or being a carbon copy of The Brady Bunch or Partridge Family. The cast did a wonderful job at rolling with all of the revisions, and they perform it spectacularly.

What were some challenges to developing the Merry Wives sound design?

The biggest issue I had was that up until the design run, we still weren’t totally sold on using the song in the show and how it might work. So I was working on developing two completely different designs for the show – one where we included the song in all of its iterations and based all of the interstitial scene change music on that song, and one where we didn’t use the song and all of the interstitial music would be pre-existing songs from the era.

Please tell me a bit about some Merry Wives scene changes using music to underpin the scene changes?

One of my favorite parts of this production is how incredibly talented and collaborative everyone was. We would be working through the show in tech and get to a scene change, and I would play the music that I was thinking of for that transition, and Aaron would work with the cast to really fold the music in to the scene change, to the point where the scene change would become a short choreographed number as the cast danced to the music while moving furniture off and on stage. Like the one where the amazing Kate Norris as midwestern Mistress Quickly danced to music reminiscent of “The Hustle.” Or the one where the wonderful wives (Regina Aquino and Ami Brabson) dance to music reminiscent of “Shaft” while scenery moves around them. Or the one where a saucy Falstaff (played by Brian Mani) danced to a piece reminiscent of “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More,” which included a couple of hilariously sultry voice-overs by Mani.

Regina Aquino and Ami Brabson in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.' Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Regina Aquino and Ami Brabson in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

They’re all so good, and the way Aaron and the cast worked with the music made them part of the fabric of the world, as opposed to “oh, here’s another scene change, so we need some music here.”

Were there particular lines of Merry Wives that “cried out” for a musical number?

It was less about specific lines of script and more about the mood of the scene before or after the musical number that determined which piece of music I used. For example, Master Page has a couple of distraught asides where he talks about being cuckolded and losing his wife to Falstaff, and Eric Hissom’s brilliant performance made the scene change afterwards cry out for something sad. So I created something reminiscent of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Ultimately I swapped that out for another piece because there was some action during that scene change by the hilarious Cody Nickell as Dr. Caius that screamed for something a bit more upbeat.

Some musical numbers sounded familiar, yet I heard something else to them. Did I mishear?

Yes! That is exactly what I was going for with these interstitial pieces. I created each one of them to make audiences think of a specific song in different sub-genres of music (folk, rock, pre-disco dance, soul) from the early ’70s. And as a twist, and in an effort to pull all of the music in the show together, each one of them has the melody the chorus or verses from the main theme song (“So This Is Windsor”) written into them.

Any final thoughts for DCMTA readers:

A good sound design should add to the mood of any given scene. It shouldn’t tell audiences how to feel; it should help them feel what they’re already feeling more deeply. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Say, for example, a Shakespearean play set in the early 1970s that calls for a very noticeable, outrageous, and not very subtle sound design.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays through March 1, 2020, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-544-7077 or go online.


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