Shakespeare and the Alabama Shakes: Grammy glory for the Bard?

Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard performing in Australia last month. The Grammy-nominated band's name is identical to the longstanding nickname of its home state's flaship theater company, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
(Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images)
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“What’s in a name,” quoth the Bard of Avon in “Romeo and Juliet.”

In the offices of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, one of the deep South’s flagship theater companies, marketing director Meg Lewis has been trying to brainstorm over that very question.

On Sunday, a bluesy young rock band fronted by a woman who reminds a lot of listeners of Janis Joplin has a shot at Grammy Awards for best new artist and best rock performance, and the art director for its debut album is a contender for the award for best recording package design.

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The band’s name is the Alabama Shakes. So is the theater company’s. Since coming into its own during the mid-1980s, it has been known informally in theater circles as Alabama Shakes, although Lewis tells us its subscribers and other folks around Montgomery are far more apt to say they’re going to “ASF,” or, simply, to “Shakespeare.”

Before the Alabama Shakes released their debut album, “Boys and Girls,” last spring, Lewis caught them in concert at a packed club in Birmingham.

“I told my boss, our chief operating officer, that we should make a connection with them. We should call their booking agent, we should call their manager. They’ll be huge,” she recalled.

But, alas, theater management teams are a busy lot, with many immediate tasks tugging at them every day. “;The readiness is all,”; Hamlet tells us, and in this case the readiness was not quite there -- Alabama Shakes never got around to calling the Alabama Shakes. And now Lewis says, they’ve probably gotten too big to, say, play a concert in the festival’s 800-capacity mainstage theater.

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Lewis is fairly sure that the rockers from Athens, Ala. – near the Tennessee line about 185 miles north of Montgomery -- didn’t get the idea for their name from the theater company. In published interviews, band members have said they called themselves the Shakes until they learned that another band already had dibs on the name, prompting them to add a bit of home-state pride.


“They may have been to the [Alabama Shakespeare Festival] on a school trip, but I’ve never seen them quoted as making any connection to us,” Lewis said.

But fans of the rock band have been making the connection, if only by accident. The theater company’s Twitter handle is @AlabamaShakes, and among its 2,325 followers as of last week, Lewis said, “I could not immediately quantify how many of those people want to follow for information about the Alabama Shakes.” When she sees rock fans expressing confusion in the Twitterverse and has an extra moment, she tries to direct them to the right place: @Alabama_Shakes.

A fan’s recent tweet to the theater said, “nothing like the Alabama Shakes to start the day out right,” Lewis noted. “No doubt she’s not talking about us.”

Lewis hasn’t given up hopes of an eventual marketing coup with a rock ‘n’ roll tie-in, which could become even more alluring if the Alabama Shakes fare well on Grammy night. “It’s been a challenge,” she said. “There’s probably some crossover in there somewhere, but we haven’t quite found it yet.”

Crossovers between rock and Shakespeare do exist – in the music. “Macbeth” is now playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (which also offers non-Shakespearean fare such as an upcoming staging of Yasmina Reza’s comedy, “God of Carnage,” and an adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird”).

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And a wildly storming rock song called “Macbeth” was performed last month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee John Cale. It’s from “Paris 1919,” a classic 1973 album that Cale, a charter member of the Velvet Underground, recorded in L.A. with members of the band Little Feat. He’s been performing the album in its entirety in recent years at artsy venues such as BAM and UCLA’s Royce Hall. The song is addressed to Macbeth and mentions Banquo, the murderous Scot’s buddy turned ghostly nemesis; while not specifically naming Lady Macbeth, it pithily gets to the crux of the Shakespearean matter: “She knew it all, and made you see things all her way.” Or is Cale talking there about the weird sisters?

Easily the most famous rock appropriation from Shakespeare comes in the dazzling sound collage at the end of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” As aural madness reigned – “oompah! oompah!” -- John Lennon mixed in snippets of a BBC radio broadcast of “King Lear,” the part in Act IV where the heroic Edgar kills the “serviceable villain” Oswald, then comforts his blinded father, the Earl of Gloucester, saying, “sit you down, father; rest you.”

For a fun bit of Shakespearean acting in a rock context, check out “Scum of the Earth,” from the Kinks’ 1974 rock musical, “Preservation” (an unforgettable theatrical and concert experience for the few who got to see the Hall of Fame band’s fully staged, do-it-yourself production of it on a brief U.S. tour that year). Ray Davies, the Kinks frontman and songwriter, stole unabashedly from Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” soliloquy from “The Merchant of Venice” in order to flesh out Flash, the corrupt but eventually sympathetic protagonist of the piece. “Scum of the Earth” marks a turning point in which Flash’s rampant, rascally greed begins to seem increasingly preferable to the puritanical totalitarianism that defeats him in the end of the very funny but ultimately very dark political parable.

No one should have been surprised at such a move from the estimable Davies, who in 1971 had made his preferences clear with “20th Century Man,” a tirade against soulless modernity: “You keep all your smart modern writers, give me William Shakespeare/You keep all your smart modern painters, I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci and Gainsborough.”

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“Romeo and Juliet” is a clear favorite for pop performers, who probably read it in high school like everybody else. Dire Straits appropriated Shakespeare’s title verbatim for a song of its own, and Lou Reed tweaked it to “Romeo Had Juliet.” Bruce Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street” describes star-crossed lovers in contemporary New York City: “Like a cool Romeo, he made his moves, oh she looked so fine/Like a late Juliet she knew he’d never be true, but then she didn’t really mind.”


Trying to make suicide sound romantic in “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult assured us that “Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity.”

And Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet recorded an album, “The Juliet Letters,” in which all the songs were epistles addressed to Shakespeare’s doomed heroine.

Reggae fans will tell you that one of the genre’s definitive musicians is bassist Robbie Shakespeare. No relation, we think. Sort of like the Alabama Shakes.


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