So, come September, Beowulf will be getting the musical treatment!
And not just any sort of musical treatment, but the rock ‘n’ roll musical treatment!
Though, according to this article, this musical isn’t going to be a straight telling of Beowulf. Not entirely, anyway.
The twist with Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is that while the events of Beowulf unfold (simplified so that all three monsters attack Heorot), a panel of academics criticizes and unpacks what’s going on in the story.
This sounds like a really cool concept, especially because of the “rock” label that’s being applied to it. Musicals with the flavour of rock music are some of my favourite operas, after all. From prog rock concept albums to early attempts like The Phantom of the Paradise — the rock musical is a solid genre.
But what sticks out about this to me more than anything is that a new Beowulf musical suggests that history does indeed repeat itself.
Back in the 70s there was a musical version of Beowulf, simply called Beowulf: A Musical Epic. It might have slipped under the radar of many because it was a Canadian production, and I don’t think it had much of a run south of the border. But this production’s varied (too varied for “Rock” alone to suit, I think) musical score by Victor Davies and the lyrics by Betty Jane Wylie make for a fantastic retelling of the story.
But what I like most about the 70s adaptation is that there really aren’t any changes to the story.
Some of the digressions in the original are cut out or reworked, and at least one character is renamed, but other than that, Beowulf: A Musical Epic stays true to the poem: Beowulf goes to Heorot to fight Grendel, fights Grendel’s mother, then goes back to Geatland where he eventually becomes king, has to fend off a dragon, and leaves his warrior legacy in the hands of Wiglaf. For its fidelity alone, I think Beowulf: A Musical Epic is worth listening to, since so few adaptations let Beowulf grow old and show us his end.
In the popular culture (all of the movie, and book adaptations) Beowulf is usually seen only defeating Grendel and maybe Grendel’s mother, but we never really see Beowulf fighting the dragon as an old man and his death, and I think this is an essential part of the poem. The fact that the poem covers it suggests that the early audience of the poem thought much differently (maybe more complexly?) about heroes than many of us do today, and certainly more so than most modern people would give early medieval people credit for.
So I’m excited for this new musical, but, whenever (and however) I manage to engage with it, I know to approach it as something more than just an adaptation. Though, that said, I’m hoping for some raucous academic commentary to go along with the brutal physicality of so much of the story.
How do you think this new Beowulf musical will work out? Will it be the next Hamilton, or just enjoy a small run in Providence, Rhode Island? Leave your thoughts in the comments!