On Stage

Romeo & Juliet

Conrad Askland scores a classic

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Anyone who’s familiar with the plot of Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare’s timeless tale of young love gone horribly awry, knows in advance that things don’t end well for the titular teens—who eventually decide they’d rather be dead than live without each other.

But despite knowing the passion in the play doesn’t quite manage to overcome familial friction—or a lethal dose of poison and a sharp dagger to the heart—audiences over the past four centuries have reveled in the story the tragedy tells.

Composer Conrad Askland is also a longtime fan of the original, so when META Performing Arts asked him to score a musical version of the Bard’s master work—something he says hasn’t been done successfully in the 400-plus years since the play first made its way onstage—he accepted the challenge.

“Past renditions have made the mistake of watering down Shakespeare’s original text to be easily understood by a modern audience,” Askland says. “Our approach, instead, was to put the burden on the music to bring out the clarity of the Bard’s original text. We believe audiences want the full depth of Shakespeare’s original text and deserve to have that delivered in an entertaining way.”

Starting Jan. 30 and continuing through mid-February at Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Theatre, audiences can see for themselves how Askland, director Joe Bowen, a cast of more than 30 and a 10-piece live orchestra have been working to transform Romeo & Juliet into a moving, memorable musical.

“The cast and crew have been amazing,” Askland says. “We were very clear from the beginning that what we were doing has never been done successfully for good reason—it’s very difficult. The cast has been fully onboard from day one and rehearsals have been intense. Actors that were cast for this project are all hungry artistically and ready for battle.”

The actors playing the leads—Dylan Kane and Katherine Fisher—are among the “hungry,” and Askland says they’re up to the challenge. In addition to being able to pass for 14 (Juliet) and 17 (Romeo), the duo also fit the bill of being flexible artists who both had a wide range of vocal and acting talents. And, like the rest of the cast, they had to be able to take detailed notes day after day and retain those notes in their performances.

While scoring the music, Askland says he had to make “thousands” of small decisions about the nuance of each actor’s delivery while still being careful not to deviate from Shakespeare’s original text. Along the way, he discovered a few surprises.

“In creating the original vocal and orchestral sketch, the first surprise was that the language seemed very fresh and contemporary to me,” Askland says. “It didn’t feel like a distant era or some moldy old Shakespeare text. It was alive, vibrant and timeless. I saw absolutely no reason to update the text or modernize it. Everything is already there, and it is beautiful and enchanting.”

In short, Askland says although those who show up to see Romeo & Juliet will be seeing a different version of what they’re used to, they won’t be missing out on what makes the story continue to be so riveting.

“For seasoned Shakespeare lovers, I hope they are fully satisfied by hearing Shakespeare’s original text and feel like they are seeing the story for the first time with an enhanced understanding and deep emotional pull,” Askland says. “For those new to Shakespeare, I hope they see an entertaining show and follow every minute of the action.

“For all, I hope we have lifted the veil of obscurity and fog that intimidates some people from watching Shakespeare. I hope we have made it accessible and vibrant to the common man. I can think of no artistic goal more noble than this, and we aim to make world history with our sweat and commitment.”

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