June 12--Imagine working on the songs for a new musical with a collaborator who has been dead for almost 400 years.
That was the challenge faced by New York City theater composer Brian Feinstein when he was asked to come up with original music for the Shakespeare on the Sound production of "As You Like It' that opens in Norwalk's Pinkney Park on Thursday, June 13.
In addition to composing background music for director Claire Shannon Kelly's modern take on the gender-bending romantic comedy, Feinstein had to set music to Shakespeare's lyrics for five songs in the play.
"I'm kind of an old-school guy, so the songs have a classic musical theater feel," Feinstein said of the style of the songs in "As You Like It."
The composer agreed that being locked into lyrics written five centuries ago was like doing a tricky puzzle.
But Feinstein's director was there to supply answers that the Bard of Avon could not give.
"I would meet with Claire and ask her, 'How do you hear this song? Is it a ballad? "Les Mis"-y? Richard Rodgers?' She would give me an idea -- the parameters -- and then I would go off and set it to music," Feinstein recalled.
The composer said that even when a lyricist is still around to collaborate, it is not unusual for musical theater artists to work separately.
"The brilliant thing about (Rodgers) was that he could work both ways. With Oscar Hammerstein, Rodgers would do the music after Oscar wrote the lyrics. But with (lyricist) Larry Hart it was the reverse, with Rodgers doing the music first and Larry supplying the lyrics," Feinstein said.
"Of course, in the case of Rodgers and Hart, Larry had so many personal problems that it was tough for Rodgers to work with Larry at the same time, so they had to do it that way," the composer said.
Feinstein has worked both ways -- music first, lyrics first -- but "at the end of the day, I don't think you can tell which is which."
The composer used his background in scoring music for independent films to supply a modern, techno sound for the music that will be heard during transitions and under some scenes.
"It's kind of spooky and weird -- pre-recorded -- and the songs are sort of old-fashioned with ukeleles and banjos, so I think the very different styles will be interesting," he said of Kelly's take on one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies.
Feinstein said the work on the show has been been going very smoothly. "I don't know if you've heard, but working in the theater can be tough," he said, laughing. "This has been a really great process."
When the composer returns to New York City after "As You Like It," he will go back to work on a number of different projects.
"That's the way it is in musical theater -- you can't just focus on one thing," he stressed, pointing out that some shows come together quickly and others spend years in workshops and other private readings before they ever see the light of day.
"I did a children's show that only took four months to be produced, but I have a commission for a Broadway show that we've been working for four years," he added.
The Broadway project -- "Tina Girl Star" -- will move a step closer to production with a major workshop in New York City next month.
"It's an original musical based on the lives of pop stars and how we create our idols," he said.
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Pinkney Park, 176 Rowayton Ave., Norwalk. Through June 30. Thursday, June 13-Sunday, June 30, 7:30 p.m. Free. (Reserved seating available for a $50 donation.) 203-299-1300, www.shakespeareonthesound.org.
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