Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1996

Shakespeare never had it so jazzy.   His words and deeds have been set to music before, but not like this.

This month (September 14-October 26), the Old Globe Theatre presents the world premiere of “Play On!”, loosely based on the Bard’s 1601 comedy “Twelfth Night”, with music by…. Duke Ellington.  

Sure, there have already been three musicalizations of “Twelfth Night”: “Your Own Thing”, “Love and Let Love” and “Music Is”, but, it “Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

“Play On!”, set in swingin’ 1940s Harlem, is the brainstorm of Sheldon Epps, the Globe’s associate artistic director.

Epps came to the Globe as part of a National Theatre Artist Residency grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Theatre Communications Group, and he was one of two recipients nationwide who recently received a two-year grant extension. He made his Globe directing debut in 1992, with an acclaimed production of “ Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting”, and went on to wow audiences with his direction of “ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me”, “Hedda Gabler” and, last spring, a spectacular “Private Lives”.

Co-founder and associate artistic director of the off-Broadway theater, The Production Company, Epps started out as an acting major at Carnegie Mellon, with training in musical theatre.   But once he tried directing, he was hooked.  

His 1983 Broadway production of “Blues in the Night” (with Leslie Uggams) was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical.   The London version was nominated for two Laurence Olivier Awards. He’s since directed almost two dozen productions of the steamy revue (including one at the Old Globe, in 1994).

“When I did “Blues”,” says Epps, “people assumed I knew and felt a lot about the blues. But, growing up in L.A. and New Jersey, I wasn’t steeped in the blues at all. I really felt ignorant about it and did the show for that reason. I discovered this rich body of music. There were three or four Ellington songs in the show, and I got very close exposure to his talent as a brilliant songwriter.   Though we think of it as music of the jazz world, there was an inherent theatricality… I’m very pleased with how the story [of “Twelfth Night”] and the characters and situations have fit together. Many of the songs I found to advance the story were from the 30’s and 40’s. So that’s where we set the piece.

“Harlem was also a perfect fit.   In the post-war effervescence, Harlem was a magical kingdom, very hyperreal and theatrical [just like Shakespeare’s Illyria].   “Twelfth Night’s” subtitle, “What You Will,” is another great parallel. Harlem was a place where anything could happen… One of the reasons I wanted to do this is we tend to forget that Harlem once was the center of New York. This is not just a musical comedy; it’s a musical fantasy set in this magical kingdom.”

To write the book for his magical musical, Epps called on playwright and first-time librettist Cheryl L. West, who wrote the spectacular “ Jar the Floor”, produced at the Globe in 1994.   According to Epps, West’s dialogue has “an incredible flair and musicality and theatricality.” With choreography by Hope Clark (“Jelly’s Last Jam”) and Mercedes Ellington (the Duke’s granddaughter, who danced in the early ’80s Ellington revue “Sophisticated Ladies”), and an impressive design team, there were enough heavy-hitters to attract the Broadway commercial support of the Nederlander Organization.

For his title, Epps used the famous first line of “Twelfth Night”: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

“It all comes together in the idea that music can feed and nourish love,” he explains. “That love songs make anything happen, make impossible relationships happen.” And “Twelfth Night” is all about impossible relationships.

Shakespeare’s primary characters have been transformed into well-known denizens of the Harlem nightlife scene.   Olivia has become Lady Liv, who represents Lady Day (AKA Billie Holiday); the bloated, carousing Sir Toby Belch is now Sweets (Fats Waller); the Count becomes Duke (Ellington); the pompous Malvolio is Rev (Cab Calloway); the quick-witted maid Maria metamorphoses into Miss Mary (a Sarah Vaughn/Della Reese composite).

“These are parallels I hope the audience subtly will get,” says Epps. “But if you don’t know the references, I hope you’ll just be seeing some great performers.”

And hearing some great music. There are almost two dozen songs in the show, accompanied by lots of dancing. Many of the songs are classics: “Mood Indigo,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Take the A Train,” and of course, “Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

Despite the jitters of any large-scale musical premiere (there’s a cast of 17, including ten dancers, and a six-piece jazz combo in the pit), Epps seems calm and confident. “We’ve got the greatest score to come along in a long time,” he says.   “It’s a built-in asset.”

After this, Epps goes back to his collaboration on another new musical, “Juba”, which received a Richard Rodgers Development Award.   His screenplay based on the life of legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter is in development, and he’s been contracted to direct an episode of TV’s “Sister, Sister,” with the potential for future assignments.

But he assures us we don’t have to worry that the theater community will lose him to film and television.   As he puts it, “Doing TV will subsidize my bad theater habit.”

©1996 Patté Productions Inc.