The inspiration for our upcoming online concert, this ambitious Broadway show has largely been lost to history.

In November 1939, new musical Swingin' the Dream premiered at the 3,500-seater Center Theatre on Broadway, New York. An original version of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in 1890s' New Orleans, the show combined swing music with Shakespeare and featured a largely African-American cast.

Swingin' the Dream was produced by writer and critic Gilbert Seldes and director Erik Charell, and was filled with some of the era's biggest names in entertainment, both on and off stage. The set designs were based on the cartoons of Walt Disney and the production was one of renowned choreographer Agnes de Mille's early ventures. The array of performing talent was particularly astonishing: Louis Armstrong played Bottom, singer Maxine Sullivan was Titania, comedian Moms Mabley was Quince, and the musical trio the Dandridge Sisters appeared as fairies, to name just some of the 100+ cast members.

“I want to dance with this”

Watch Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director of the Young Vic in London, Jeffrey Horowitz, Founding Artistic Director of the Theatre for a New Audience in New-York, and our Artistic Director Gregory Doran, talk about Swingin' The Dream and how it all came about.

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It was the music that was the real draw for the show. Charell combined original music by composer Jimmy Van Heusen (who went on to win four Academy Awards during his career) with popular jazz standards, including Ain't Misbehavin', Blue Moon and Jeepers Creepers. One of the musical's new compositions, Darn That Dream, became a hit when it was released the following year by Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing". Goodman joined famed jazz pianists Fats Waller and Count Basie to create the sound for Swingin' the Dream, which also brought in elements of Felix Mendelssohn's 1842 version of the play, including his famous Wedding March.

Sadly, all complete scripts and footage of the production have now been lost, leaving only scant evidence of what this jazz-infused spectacle was truly like. Even so, Swingin' the Dream remains widely regarded as one of the most ambitious and intriguing Broadway musical adaptations of Shakespeare to ever take to the stage.

Louis Armstrong with his trumpet.
Louis Armstrong played Bottom in the show.
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We teamed up with London’s Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience (New York) to produce a work-in-progress concert telling the story of Swingin' the Dream. The event was streamed online on 9 January.

You can read more about Swingin' the Dream on the Guardian in A Midsummer Night's Sax Comedy.