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The Folger Spotlight

Merry Nell-odies: Music Celebrating Mistress Gwynn

Nell Gwynn is a heart-warming comedy to help you get through the winter doldrums.  Gear up for your upcoming performance or give your day a shot of Gwynn-power with our playlist of merry Nell-odies that celebrates this first lady of the stage.

Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) and John Dryden (Michael Glenn). Nell Gwynn. Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Before we really get into the story of Nell, we start with a couple of songs to set the scene.

  • “Nell Gwynn” – Country Dance
    We open our playlist with one of the three melodies we’ve included by Edward German for Nell Gwyn [sic], a 1900 play about our favorite Restoration Cinderella. Lively, charming, with a bit of drama at its heart, this piece is a perfect introduction to our playlist of tunes dedicated to our Nell.
  • Move Over, Busker 
    Paul McCartney
    Nell makes a cameo in the first verse of McCartney’s 1986 tune that name drops a number of iconic performers, including Mae West and Errol Flynn. Here, oranges are still her main concern, but all of that is about to change.

Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) and Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff). Nell Gwynn. Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Nell is introduced to the world of the theater by Charles Hart, and quickly finds a second home with Thomas Killigrew’s King’s Company. To mark the start of her theatrical career, we move to a selection of songs related to treading the boards.

  • I’m the Greatest Star
    Funny Girl
    From the 1963 musical about early Ziegfield comedienne Fanny Brice, “I’m the Greatest Star” encapsulates the wit, humor, and star-quality that helped rocket Nell to fame in her own time. 
  • The Book Report
    You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
    Continuing with showtunes about the theatrical life, we dedicate this number to the King’s Company’s playwright—and procrastinator—in chief, John Dryden. Be it a book report or a starring vehicle for Nell, what project hasn’t at some time been plagued with self-doubt and distraction?
  • There’s No Business Like Show Business
    Annie Get Your Gun!

Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff). Nell Gwynn. Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Nell was able to become a leading actor because of a recent change to English performance practices. While exiled abroad during the Interregnum, King Charles II became used to seeing women perform in plays—something that was not done on English stages. Upon his return to England, he ordered that the theaters “permit women to play the women’s part.” We mark this important shift with songs about women taking charge.

  • Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves (Than Never to Have Loved)
    Eurythmics with Aretha Franklin
  • Man! I Feel Like a Woman!
    Shania Twain
    As pointed out in Jessica Swale’s sharp script, the appearance of women on the English stage meant that the female parts no longer needed to rely on feminine stereotypes to communicate character. The confident point-of-view of Twain’s going out anthem seem appropriate for this new wave of writing (plus, it’s just darn catchy).
  • Run the World (Girls)
  • Girl on Fire
    Alicia Keys

And then we move on to a few choice tunes about coming into your own.

  • Nell Gwyn [sic] Suite: Merrymaker’s Dance
    Merrymaker’s Dance has a dizzy quality and dramatic finish which lends itself to suddenly finding yourself thrust into the spotlight.
  • I’m Coming Out
    Diana Ross
  • I’m Every Woman
    Whitney Houston
    Leaning into her powers, Nell demonstrated an ability to adapt to situations and play to the crowd. One patron in particular took notice…

Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) and King Charles II (R.J. Foster). Nell Gwynn. Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

Our last section is dedicated to Nell’s great romance with King Charles II. Though he had many mistresses, Charles had a special place in his heart for Nell. Their relationship lasted nearly twenty years and he spoke of her on his deathbed.

  • It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World
    James Brown
    If there’s one monarch who understood “it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl,” it’s Charles II. Notorious for his many paramours, he first appears in Nell Gwynn with Nell’s predecessor, Lady Barbara Castlemaine. Later, the introduction of Louise de Kéroualle is cause for some concern (as well as a memorable moment from Nell).
  • Don’t You Want Me
    The Human League
  • Kiss
    Nell didn’t have to be rich to be Charles’ girl—he, like Prince, just wanted her extra time (and her kiss).
  • If My Friends Could See Me Now
    Sweet Charity
  • They All Laughed
    Ella Fitzgerald
    A classic tune from a classic crooner, They All Laughed encapsulates the against-all-odds romance of an orange-seller from Coal Pan Alley and the one of the most powerful men of his era, but with the playful tone that made Nell and Charlie’s romance such a lasting one.

We close out with the Nell Gwyn [sic] Suite: Pastoral Dance to finish the set and send you off. Hopefully these tunes have brightened your day and warmed your heart, just as Nell Gwynn has done for us here at Folger Theatre.

Stay tuned for further insights into Folger Theatre’s Nell Gwynn, on stage through March 10. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.

Nell Gwynn
by Jessica Swale
Original music by Kim Sherman
Directed by Robert Richmond; scenic design by Tony Cisek; costume design by Mariah Anzaldo Hale; lighting design by Andrew F. Griffin; sound design by Matt Otto.