A “King Lear” Set in the Key of Sinatra

SHARE A “King Lear” Set in the Key of Sinatra

Larry Yando (right) is Lear and Ross Lehman is the Fool in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production of “King Lear.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)


± In previews; opens Sept. 17 and runs through Nov. 9

± Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

± Tickets: $48 – $78

± Info: (312) 595-5600; http://www.chicagoshakes.com

Early in the 1990s, already plagued by health problems, and frequently relying on a teleprompter to feed him lyrics he had been singing for decades, Frank Sinatra gave a concert on the stage of Chicago’s Civic Opera House, backed by a big band led by Frank, Jr.

Throughout the performance, Sinatra barked at his son, demeaning him in ways that made many in the audience cringe. But the dutiful son soldiered on, clearly aware that his father was probably most angry at himself, and the fact that he was showing the signs of age.

All this came to mind recently when Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, began explaining the genesis of her new production of “King Lear” — the story of a powerful but aging monarch who abruptly decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, determining his allotments on the intensity of their claims of love and devotion, and subsequently being badly abused by two of the three.

“Back in 2006, I was caring for my mother, who was spending the last portion of her life living with me in my apartment,” said Gaines, whose production opens Sept. 17. “And I just happened to hear a Frank Sinatra song on the radio — one that I only later learned was titled ‘Where Do You Go?’ The lyrics asked: ‘Where do you go/When it starts to rain/Where will you sleep/When the night time comes/What do you do/When your heart’s in pain/Where will you run/When the right time comes.’ And all I could think was: This is Lear’s story in a nutshell.”

“I had no idea who wrote the song [the words are by Arnold Sundgaard and the music by Alec Wilder], and I couldn’t find it on any of my albums. Besides, I’d already directed two productions of ‘King Lear’ — one back in 1993 and another in 2001 — and had no intention of doing another.”

Then Gaines happened to be at a dinner party where she met Chicago writer Bill Zehme, author of the bestseller, “The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’.” And she asked “the expert” if he knew the name of the song whose lyrics had touched her.

“I told him: If you figure out what song that was I will have to direct ‘Lear’ again,” Gaines recalled. “And of course he did.”

“I’m kind of a Rachmaninoff or Rolling Stones person, so I didn’t know the full Sinatra canon. But within a week I’d bought every single CD I could, listened to ‘Where Do I Go?’ many times over, and also heard ‘Angel Eyes,’ which I immediately realized was the song about Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and most devoted daughter. I also knew that before his downfall, the music for this arrogant king had to be ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’.”

Then Gaines panicked. How would she ever get the closely guarded rights to Sinatra’s recordings, and how could she afford them if she did?

“So I e-mailed Bill Zehme and asked if he might give me an intro to someone connected with the Sinatra estate, and he wrote his contact there the kind of gorgeous letter only your grandmother would write. Within two weeks he got a letter from the attorney for the estate saying ‘Don’t worry,’ and they have been incredibly generous with us from that moment on.”

Meanwhile, Gaines had come to the conclusion that what drives Lear to his impulsive actions at the start of the play are really the signs of early dementia.

“No one in his position would have divided his estate as he did, and expect to be treated in the same way after all the property and power had been transferred,” said Gaines. “At one point he even asks, ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ Of course Lear doesn’t live long enough to move into the later stages of dementia, but I think it’s there, and it has allowed me to see this play through a totally different lens. There is no greater tragedy than watching someone disintegrate. The collapse of a great mind is an irreparable loss.”

Gaines’ next step was to call Larry Yando, the actor who has appeared in 23 productions at her theater, was then in “Jungle Book” at the Goodman, would go on to give a bravura performance in “The Dance of Death” at Writers’ Theatre. Though younger than many actors who have played the role, Gaines saw him as the ideal choice for her modern rendering of “Lear.” And she proceeded to tap three suitably younger actresses in New York to play Lear’s daughters (by different mothers), including Nehassaiu deGannes as the spurned but loving Cordelia, and Bianca LaVerne Jones and Jessiee Datino as the scheming Goneril and Regan.

“Larry is so innately musical, and while he doesn’t actually sing any of the Sinatra songs, they are a kind of soundtrack in his head,” said Gaines. “And as soon as Larry signed on I called Ross Lehman to play Lear’s Fool.” She also contacted the masterful British-born painter, David Hockney, who she’d met many years earlier, also at a dinner party, and asked if she could use a copy of one of his paintings in the production because “owning great art is a contemporary symbol of wealth and power.” Again, request granted.

Gaines’ concept made immediate sense to Larry Yando, who describes himself as being “into Sinatra in a retro way, but not an aficionado.”

“The idea of Sinatra’s songs as a running microcosm of Lear’s world made immediate sense to me,” said the actor. “I listened to the album with ‘Where Do you Go?,” which is full of sad, depressing, ‘lost man’ songs. And I had the feeling there might be alcohol involved. And the interesting thing is that the songs really do feel like an inner landscape. I don’t have to work to reconcile Shakespeare’s classic text and the song lyrics because there is something in the rhythm and melody of both that gel perfectly.”

“The one surprise about playing Lear is how much energy it takes,” said Yando. “I’m playing him as my age, not 80, but sustaining that energy, and modulating the erratic behavior and dementia can be tricky. One thing that has been helpful is going to the Andersonville coffee shop where I learn lines, and where there are always a couple of street people hanging out. I’ve engaged with them to get an idea of how their synapses work, particularly for one scene in which I really go off the deep end.”

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