Singing the Bard: ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ with the Princeton Singers

The Princeton Singers will perform a concert of Shakespeare-inspired music on April 23.

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The Princeton Singers will perform a concert of Shakespeare-inspired music on April 23.

By Anthony Stoeckert
   Take some Elizabethan music, a few 19th-century songs, and a little Cole Porter, and you have a musical tribute to Shakespeare, and a concert that shows the range of the Princeton Singers.
   The chamber choir will present two performances of a program titled Brush Up Your Shakespeare, April 23 at the Princeton University Art Museum. The concerts will honor the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death with musical offerings and readings by actor Christopher Coucill.
   Steven Sametz, artistic director for the Princeton Singers, says the concerts will offer beautiful music and show how influential Shakespeare is, while also showcasing the versatility of the Princeton Singers, as the choir will sing songs of various styles from different periods.
   ”It’s not like a Renaissance fair where we’re all doing madrigals,” Mr. Sametz says. “They will do a little of that, but they’re doing a huge variety within that idea of Shakespeare text.”
   The concert will feature music Shakespeare would be familiar with, such as works by Thomas Morley (including “Sing We and Chant It,” “O Mistress Mine” and “It Was a Lover and his Lass”), and Robert Jones (“Farewell Dear Love”).
   The concert also will include Elizabethan-themed works, such as Robert Lucas de Pearsall’s “Lay a Garland,” based on a poem from Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s play, The Maid’s Tragedy; and works by Mr. Sametz, including the premiere of his “I am the cygnet of this fair swan,” based on text from Shakespeare’s King John.
   In between the musical pieces, Mr. Coucill will read from Shakespeare. Mr. Coucill has appeared on Broadway and was on the soap opera One Life to Live.
   ”He’s going to be doing Shakespearean readings, and Chris’ forte is really Shakespeare,” Mr. Sametz says. “He does a lot of work at Shakespeare festivals around the country.”
   Among the Shakespeare works Mr. Coucill will be reading from are Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and As You Like It.
   ”Each of these texts feeds into the musical composition, which relates directly after the text, either it’s from the play or it’s from the same theme as the play,” Mr. Sametz says. “We constructed it so that the readings are in dialogue with the music for the whole concert.”
   Mr. Coucill has worked with the Princeton Singers before during the group’s 2013 performance of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. For this concert, Mr. Coucill will join in on the singing.
   ”Chris is a Broadway actor and a Broadway singer, so he’s actually singing ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ from ‘Kiss Me Kate,’” Mr. Sametz says. “It’s the title (of the concert), so we couldn’t not include it. I made a new arrangement for Chris and the Princeton Singers, which is a lot of fun for the singers.”
   Mr. Sametz didn’t have an arrangement of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” when the group decided to make that they name of the show. Once he realized that number would be part of the concert, he realized Mr. Coucill should do more than just read Shakespeare’s words during the show. It’s a good fit since Mr. Coucill appeared in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me Kate, Mr. Porter’s musical take on The Taming of the Shrew.
   ”Suddenly, he’s being a song-and-dance man in addition to a Shakespearean actor,” Mr. Sametz says. “At heart, we need to remember that Shakespeare was an entertainer. As much as we think it’s elucidating and educational, it’s really good stuff.”
   Mr. Sametz adds that the show is shaping up to be a fun one for the choir members.
   ”I think the singers are having a great time working on this program, because there is such variety. They get to be 19th-century romantic singers; they get to be Renaissance singers; they get to be witches, which they love,” he says with a laugh.
   And don’t fret if you’re not a Shakespeare scholar. The concert is about music and some wonderful words. Mr. Sametz says anyone who enjoys music is sure to have a good time at Brush Up Your Shakespeare.
   ”You just have to like a good show,” he says.
The Princeton Singers will perform Brush Up Your Shakespeare at Princeton University Art Museum on the Princeton University campus, April 23, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15; princetonsingers.org.