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Christopher Plummer makes music — with Shakespeare

It has been more than a half-century since Christopher Plummer played Henry V; it was 1956, to be exact.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It has been more than a half-century since Christopher Plummer played Henry V; it was 1956, to be exact.

If it is hard to believe that this great (and still very busy) actor is now 81, it was even harder to believe it on Saturday evening as he roamed the stage of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center as the young king, reciting excerpts of Shakespeare's famous play as the New York Philharmonic performed from the score of the 1944 film.

Plummer has been quoted as saying it was this movie — starring Laurence Olivier — that made him take up acting, and it was clear he had a deep relationship with "Henry V" from the moment he began the familiar prologue: "O, for a Muse of fire ..."

Reciting from memory and dressed in a burgundy dinner jacket (the better to play, at one point, the Duke of Burgundy), the actor shifted between roles. Mainly, he was Henry, of course, but he also took on lines from the Chorus and Burgundy — using a wireless microphone to help him compete with well over 200 people onstage, including not one but two choruses, nearly 150 singers in all.

Plummer was, in fact, one of those who commissioned "Henry V: A Musical Scenario After Shakespeare," arranged by Christopher Palmer in 1988 from British composer William Walton's film score, and the actor has narrated it before. The soaring, patriotic music (Alan Gilbert conducted on Saturday) is built around speeches from the play, none more famous than Henry's rousing battle cry to his outnumbered men, the St. Crispin's Day speech.

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," intoned Plummer, giving one of literature's great pep talks. Later, England's victory achieved, there was a moment of levity as Plummer's Henry coaxed a first kiss from his newly conquered French princess: "You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate."

Avery Fisher was packed for the evening, just one of two recent extraordinary events at the Philharmonic involving film scores.

Earlier this month, in a feat of synchronization, audio engineering, and, doubtless, concentration, the orchestra on two evenings played Leonard Bernstein's score to "West Side Story" while the film was broadcast on a huge screen above.

If hearing the music played live by one of the world's top orchestras was not enough, at intermission on opening night conductor David Newman introduced a gaggle of cast and crew members in the audience, including the ill-fated Riff, leader of the Jets (Russ Tamblyn), and the equally ill-fated (but, it must be said, extremely handsome) Bernardo of the Sharks (George Chakiris).

There was no movie screen Saturday night at the "Henry V" event, and, alas, Olivier is long gone.

But happily, Plummer was there, one of the true greats, and his majestic voice was one of the most expressive instruments on the stage.