Henry V, Shakespeare’s tale of a young monarch’s quest to prove himself a capable and trusted king against all odds, has seen its fair share of lauded adaptations throughout the decades. And in a first for Baltimore, the latest iteration, which runs through May 15 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, features musical contributions from local folk musician Caleb Stine.
Charm City’s own “Cosmic Cowboy,” known for recurring shows like his long-enduring Round the Mountain series, provides the gritty, thought-provoking score for Washington D.C. director Alec Wild’s interpretation of the classic play. Following a performance at the downtown theater this Saturday, May 7, Stine is set to take the stage with live renditions of his compositions for a special post-show concert.
Ahead of the exclusive show, we spoke with Stine and Wild to learn more about the passion project—which marks both of their debuts with the iconic city theater.
How did this collaboration come to be?
Alec Wild: When I first started talking to the folks over at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company about the show, they asked me about the music and the sound, and I told them that I really liked working with composers to create original scores. And then someone said, “You should meet Caleb.” I was like “Great!” We emailed and connected via phone and had a terrific conversation about Henry V, about Caleb’s work, and what I was looking for. I think we really hit it off, both spiritually and intellectually.
Caleb Stine: I was thrilled to get the call. I’m a bit of a Shakespeare fan myself.
What were your initial visions for this play and score?
CS: I don’t know if I even told Alec this when we first spoke, but in one of those bleak COVID nights where you find yourself waking up and wondering what to do, I wandered downstairs and picked up my collected Shakespeare works and went through some of the histories, including Henry V. I’m a fan of the Kenneth Branagh version. When I was a kid, that was a big film and a huge soundtrack that was played in my home. But I’ve never done anything related to Shakespeare before, so luckily, Alec had some great insight of where to steer the ship. I mean, you could sort of go anywhere with Shakespeare, right?
AW: Yeah, you sure can.
CS: I remember when we had the first conversation, Alec was saying that this would be a tricky play to do right now, but that we’d lean into the dualities of honor and horror in war.
AW: Yeah, we talked about that a lot. We were planning this production before the invasion of Ukraine. And in its history, Henry V is a play about this hero king. It’s got a lot of jingoism and a lot of love for king and country. Caleb and I had a heart-to-heart discussion about how to handle that. For political expediency and money—and for many other reasons—this king goes to war. How can we be truthful about what we think war is without making it a play about a villain king? Doing Shakespeare nowadays is so much about building a bridge from the play to the audience. I think music is the most important thing we have to help do that. We talked about mixing period music with contemporary instrumentation, or contemporary music with period instrumentation. We talked a bit about Sting’s album. We talked about string quartets that are covering Metallica. And Caleb sort of ran with these ideas.
Doing Shakespeare nowadays is so much about building a bridge from the play to the audience. I think music is the most important thing we have to help do that.
Caleb, this play is a departure from your well-known gigs, including Grateful Brunch and the Round the Mountain series. This must be so exciting.
CS: You can underline and highlight that. It’s a thrill. Working on this, there was never any lack of inspiration. And from the beginning, Alec, bless his heart, had such a “try it” attitude. We knew not everything was going to work, but at least we could try. Another one of the thrills was being part of a team, rather than doing the Caleb Stine thing, which I also love, but this was something much bigger. Unlike writing a song, with a soundtrack, it really should be felt more than heard. It’s not about bringing attention to the music. The music adds technicolor to the things that are happening. That’s fun for me too.
Alec, you mentioned using music as a bridge. What does this score do to help convey the crucial elements of Henry V to viewers?
AW: Of course, Shakespeare didn’t have a soundtrack. There were probably live musicians used in some of the plays, but we have no way of knowing if there were musicians underscoring. In thinking about the St. Crispin’s Day speech and the “Once More Unto the Breach,” speech, which are two of Henry’s famous speeches where he rallies his men to go to war, you can put inspiring, sort of nationalistic music underneath those to give a sense of “we’re all doing this together, for our country.” Or, the music can kind of undercut that concept and remind us that maybe the things Henry is saying aren’t entirely ideas that we should take at face value. I think that’s one of the super important things the music in this production does. It doesn’t let us get comfortable with any of the warlike things that the king and these people are doing.
CS: Alec’s choice of where there was music was key. What we ended up with were these moments, especially toward the end of the play, where there are some very eerie wood blocks and tape delay—and very tribal war booms—that heavily feature sound design. It’s psychological. It’s kind of getting you into that feeling of “Oh my God. This is actually people fighting other people.” We came up with a theme. There’s a recurring melodic motif that represents the crown. It repeats several times throughout the play in various instrumental forms, and it sort of ends on a nebulous question mark. It’s like we’re striving for the crown. We’re all in lockstep—including Henry. He’s locked into this crown he didn’t want in the first place. But here it is. It’s compelling. It’s leading things forward. Ultimately, I think that melodic theme is the bridge that you’re talking about that causes you to realize that things are a little bit ambiguous. We’re not just feeling all “hurrah hurrah” here.
Unlike writing a song, with a soundtrack, it really should be felt more than heard. It’s not about bringing attention to the music. The music adds technicolor to the things that are happening.
AW: I couldn’t say it better. The musical theme doesn’t tell us how to feel. It sort of asks us. That’s one of the wonderful things about Caleb’s music. When I mentioned that this play was about horror, honor, and longing for something that we want to be, but we know we’re not going to be, Caleb was like “Cool!” He wrote this beautiful thing. And the theme does stay with you, not because it’s catchy, but because it’s sort of haunting in a way. I think that goes hand in hand with the production too. We have lots of moments where the actors will turn to the audience and look at them as if to say, “We just did this. What do you think?”
CS: That’s one of the things that I just love about the staging of this. As with any performance, the music is just one small layer. But the accumulation of everything feels so of the moment. I can only speak for myself, but by the end of it, I think the play does ask you where you stand in terms of how you feel about your country, how you feel about war, how you feel about how a community hangs together. Obviously, this play was written 500 years ago, and it’s sort of speaking to the fact that war is in humans’ DNA. It asks how we are overcoming this. What I like about this version is that I really identify with Henry—not as a king, but because of all of his layers. Here is a human being who was thrown into an impossible situation. No matter how you slice it, he’s having to deal with the horror of war.
AW: In the play, the king makes very difficult decisions. He makes threats and does things that are certainly distasteful—if not horrific—and he wins. Yet, at the end of the play, the chorus comes on and says, “Oh, by the way, this is pretty much the end,” because Henry VI lost France, and England was plunged into civil war. And you’re like, “What? Why did we do all this?” I think that question lingers. I think Shakespeare put it out there. Caleb and I both thought this was really important.
What I like about this version is that I really identify with Henry—not as a king, but because of all of his layers. Here is a human being who was thrown into an impossible situation.
Caleb described this particular version as being very “of the moment.” What will fans of more traditional Shakespeare get from it?
AW: What the audience gets is really up to them. Our job is to try to tell the truth with as much life as we can. A neighbor of mine’s son died a couple of days ago. I saw him the next day and he just looked at me and said, “The problem is, I don’t know how to feel.” I think that sometimes people assign experiences as good or bad. But truthfully, we don’t know how to feel when it comes to these extremities in our lives. At its best, that’s what theater is there to help us to remember. An audience member who goes in and wants to see a hero might find it, but they’re not going to find it without caveats and questions. And somebody who wants to see a play that denounces war might find that too, but they’re also going to realize, “Wait. I like this person. I’m kind of rooting for them. Why am I doing that?” That’s the special thing about theater. It can give us what we’re looking for, but it also deepens the experience and makes us challenge ourselves.
What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of creating this production?
CS: Everyone is carrying a lot these days. So if you can offer someone a night where they are swept away, they’re being told a story, and they are allowed to, as Alec said, think for themselves and come to their own conclusions, what a gift, you know? What you’re hoping for is to take the audience from A to Z, and along the way, they have totally forgotten about their bank account. They have totally forgotten about something somebody said to them at work. Hopefully, what you’ve offered is a chance for them to go to that mythic space inside of themselves, where they’re free. They’re in story world. I’m always jazzed to do that.
AW: For me, the great joy in doing these kinds of plays is that you go in and have ideas about what they are, and you discover so much more. The story is always going to be the story. And I think that the rediscovery of the story and the power of that, and the depth of it, no matter your point of view, is the most exciting thing.
That’s the special thing about theater. It can give us what we’re looking for, but it also deepens the experience and makes us challenge ourselves.
CS: Shakespeare is such a springboard for that. Since opening night, I have not been bored once. This Shakespeare guy is like the Bob Dylan of playwrights. He’s really good, and very similar to Bob Dylan in that he’s taking the juiciest morsels from other writers and boiling them down.
AW: Also similar to Bob Dylan is this score, where the tune is open to interpretation. The chorus might be different every time he sings it, but the song is what’s important.
CS: I feel like I could do another month of this. Now that the ship has sailed a little bit, I could continue to just sit and refine the music. Alec, I’m wondering if you ever think of a play in the same way after opening night. After that ship has sailed, is it onto the next project?
AW: No. Not for me. In fact, my preference would be to work on this show for the next five years.
CS: That’s what I’m saying too. I would love that. I feel like we’re just getting started.
This Shakespeare guy is like the Bob Dylan of playwrights. He’s really good.
What can you tell us about the after party on May 7?
CS: It’s gonna be a great performance. And then after the fact, I’m gonna roll in there with my rough and tumble folk musicians, and we’re just going to take the stage and make a lot of music while everybody drinks.
AW: That’s what theater should be. And that’s what Shakespeare should be. It shouldn’t be this highfalutin, elevated thing that we go to and we take our cultural broccoli and go home. We should be in a community, listening to music, and eating together. You know, having that communal experience, that’s the point.
CS: I’m so glad you said that, Alec. I think you bring that energy to the play. In the first minute alone, enough things happen to where you’re like, “Oh shit. This is not what I expected out of a Shakespeare play.” And that’s what we need.