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Musing on the music in Shakespeare’s ears (and ours)

Jeff Perry in "Standup Shakespeare" at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Joel Moorman)

Early on in “Something Rotten!,” the irreverent musical farce that imagines the birth of the Broadway musical as it might have happened during the Elizabethan era, a character suffering from Shakespeare envy loudly rants against The Bard’s use of iambic pentameter, the “rhythmic feet” that set the beat for his poetry.

Of course the best actors know how to transform that meter into pure verbal music and, like great jazz musicians, play riffs on those regular beats — dancing around the potential for a sing-song-like predictability in the lines, and turning them into heightened colloquial speech. And this past Monday night I was reminded of just how ingeniously this can be done as Steppenwolf Theatre presented a one-night-only performance of “Standup Shakespeare” as part of its Lookout Series.

A 90-minute “concert reading” of a cabaret-like piece, the show comes with a collage-like “book” by Kenneth Welsh that cleverly mixes, matches and interweaves excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets on the themes of sex, love, betrayal, old age and music itself. It is all set to a gorgeous, eclectic score by composer-pianist Ray Leslee that moves seamlessly from lyrical jazz, to rousing gospel-rock, to samba, to a sophisticated evocation of classical baroque and more, all played brilliantly by Leslee, with Marshall Coid on violin, Josh Plotner on woodwinds and David Dunaway on bass. And that is just for starters.

Opera singer and jazz master Thomas Young (with Josh Plotner on woodwinds and Marshall Coid on violin), in the concert reading of “Standup Shakespeare” at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Joel Moorman)

Serving as the catalyst for the storytelling was Jeff Perry, who played The Fool, a frequent character and commentator in Shakespeare’s plays. Aiding and abetting him throughout was Tony Award-wining actress Alice Ripley, as the alternately seductive and disinterested love interest, and most remarkable of all, opera singer Thomas Young (who was in the show’s original production). A lyric tenor who can also scat with the best of them, he brought a sense of both trickster-like mischief and the wisdom of experience to his every moment on stage. There was even a cameo for Steppenwolf’s Francis Guinan, as the Heckler planted in the audience.

This concert was clearly a labor of love (and nostalgia) for Perry, a co-founder of Steppenwolf (currently starring in the hit ABC series “Scandal”). As he explained at the start of the show, he first saw “Standup Shakespeare” (which was directed by Mike Nichols) in the early 1980s when he was acting in the Off-Broadway run of Steppenwolf’s “Balm in Gilead,” and it was being performed at a neighboring theater.

“I never forgot it, and here we are giving it a Chicago audition,” Perry explained, suggesting there might be a future life for the production in New York (although it would easily charm audiences here, either in a reprise at Steppenwolf, or perhaps even at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater).

Although the show goes far beyond the literal, watching it brought back memories of all the ways in which Shakespeare commented on the power of music (“If music be the food of love, play on”) and often used it as a metaphor, as when Hamlet taunts the disloyal Guildenstern (” ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.”)

More intriguingly, it brought to mind the many inventive ways in which Shakespeare’s language has been adapted by composers from Cole Porter (in “Kiss Me Kate”), to the Q Brothers (whose “The Bomb-itty of Errors” and “Othello: The Remix” put a hip-hop spin on Shakespeare).

And it was a reminder, too, of how directors have winningly contemporized his plays by scoring them with pop music (as music director Matt Deitchman did in Barbara Gaines’ “Tug of War” epics, using the songs of Leonard Cohen, Linda Perry, Nina Simone, Pete Townsend and Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett) or suggested a particular updated time period (as in Robert Falls’ “King Lear,” which conjured the war in Bosnia by lacing it with a Balkan beat-box sound) or culture (as in the Anglo-Indian production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” some years ago at Chicago Shakespeare that used the music of India and South Asia).

I still recall a chat with British actress Emma Thompson many years ago when she was in Chicago as part of the International Theatre Festival and visibly cringed as she talked about how much she loathed the “hey nonny no” school of Shakespeare with its precious takes on traditional English folk songs. To be sure, there is none of that in “Standup Shakespeare.” And even when the Bard’s words are spoken they have a special music. One of the biggest laughs in the show came with the deftly insinuating pronunciation of the word trumpet (“Trump … et”). Listen closely enough to Shakespeare and you even hear the unintentional music in his words.

Tony Award-winning actress Alice Ripley in “Standup Shakespeare” at Steppenwolf Theatre. (Photo: Joel Moorman)