In 1966, Broadway impresario Harold Hecuba stunned critics and audiences alike when he staged Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a musical.
Hecuba’s audacious move created a sensation and the Hamlet musical was a hit. The celebration soon was overshadowed by scandal, though, when a group of mostly amateur actors claimed to have not only written the musical but to have staged it for Hecuba in a private presentation.
In a bizarre twist, the playwrights were identified as the crew and passengers of a sightseeing boat presumed lost at sea when it didn’t return to port following a vicious storm years earlier.
Yes, this actually happened, some of it anyway, on an episode of Gilligan’s Island titled “The Producer.” Besides showing the ambitions of the sit-com’s writers, it also underlined the enduring presence of the Pride of Stratford-on-Avon.
His presence hasn’t abated a whit in the 56 years since that Gilligan’s Island episode. That’s why Jobsite will be presenting Hamlet in the Jaeb Theater beginning Jan. 11.
Why do these works created half a millennium ago still resonate with contemporary audiences?
“The truth is the plays are just that good,” said David Jenkins, Jobsite’s co-founder and producing artistic director.
Carla Corvo (L) as Horatio and Giles Davies (R) as Hamlet in Jobsite Theater’s production of Hamlet. Photo courtesy of Ned Averill-Snell.
Shakespeare “knew what brought people to the theater,” Jenkins said. “He knew what people wanted to see, and he was able to effectively create a genre of theater where one did not necessarily exist.”
Shakespeare’s plays have proven to be not only enduring but malleable, with familiar stories placed in new and different settings.
“We’re still making teen movies that are based on his plays. We’re still making rom-coms based on his plays,” Jenkins said. “A good story is still a good story.”
Some of the flexibility theater companies now find in the Bard’s works was on display in the original productions. For example, Jenkins said, “his actors didn’t wear period costumes. Even if they were doing Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s actors always looked like they were in contemporary plays.”
One element that will distinguish Jobsite’s Hamlet from other productions will be its use of music. No, Jenkins hasn’t gone full Hecuba, but Jobsite composer Jeremy Douglass will be incorporating the music of Leonard Cohen into the play’s score.
“I told Jeremy that there were three stories I wanted to tell with Hamlet: a ghost story, a detective story and a revenge story. Jeremy said it felt like a Leonard Cohen mood.”
It seems like a perfect pairing: the Melancholy Dane meets the Melancholy Canadian. Who knows? Maybe Hamlet: The Musical isn’t so far-fetched after all.
I mean, technically a musical adaptation of Hamlet already exists, but I guess singing lions don’t really count.