At the very first production meeting we had for As You Like It, Bill Brown stated that we would probably not be doing all the songs in the script, at which point I instantly suggested that we cut “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”. The look Bill gave me – a mixture of surprise, disappointment, and confusion – told me I had misspoke. I would like to be able to say that I had only misunderstood the beauty and importance of the song but the truth is that the song contained a phrase that stymied me because of my pop culture upbringing. Two little words that conjur singing dwarves: Heigh Ho
“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” begins encouragingly enough with a beautiful observation that the winter wind, however unkind, is more desirable than the ingratitude of one’s fellow man. I like illustrations from the natural world and can throw myself behind that completely. But then you get to “heigh ho” and a string of “olly” words – holly, folly, jolly – and my first response was panic. Now I had two famous cartoon songs in my head, the second being “Holly Jolly Christmas”. I longed for The Tempest’s “Full Fathom Five” with its “bones” and “coral” and “sea change” – evocative words that paint vivid pictures and tie very specifically to the story. Instead, the picture I had was of seven little men with pick axes marching to and from work, or worse a showstopping musical number in Santa’s workshop
For all its light hearted frivolity, As You Like It is not an easy play and no designer on this project was presented with an easy task. Keith Pitts had to design a set that starts inside a palace and ends up in the forest in a theater with no wing space or fly space. Rachel Healy had to help Tracy Arnold transform into a convincing boy – the entire premise of the play depends on it. Charlie Cooper had to take us from outside to inside to outside all by himself for one very critical moment in Act Two. And I was worrying about singing dwarves.
As is usually the case with these things, the answer is to fully embrace what you fear. At some point I realized I was trying to run over the words in the hopes that nobody would notice them or would forgive or forget them. Then I realized that “Heigh Ho” is the most important moment of the song and it made all the difference. Rather than being nonsense words, “Heigh Ho” is an expression that can evoke either hope or sadness or even both at the same time (check the Webster’s definition if you don’t believe me). This realization unlocked the entire song for me. I like to imagine William Shakespeare strolling into the room and saying to me, “Very good. Now, NEVER assume that you know better than I do again.” (If only he did that more…)
“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” and the melodic motif that makes up “Heigh Ho” have become very important to the production. It is the first musical phrase the audience will hear in the show, it forms the basis of the Miles Davis inspired jazz number that accompanies Rosalind’s first appearance, it anchors the end of our First Act, and it is transformed into the Debussy inspired music that brings the true Rosalind and Celia back to us in the final scene of the play.In terms of my personal artistic growth, I think it’s the best setting of text (i.e. song) I’ve written to date and is certainly my proudest achievement at Writers’ Theatre. I owe an immense debt to Carol Kuykendall and Kevin Asselin for their beautiful and completely personal interpretation of it in the show, W Shakespeare for being the smarter half of the songwriting team of Hansen & Shakespeare, and to Bill Brown for that brief moment of consternation.