Inside Department of Theatre's "Illyria"

March 24 2022
L-R: Eva Merrill as Olivia and Katie Calderone as Viola | photo Todd Collins L-R: Eva Merrill as Olivia and Katie Calderone as Viola | photo Todd Collins

By Aaron Swenson 

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, you might recognize elements of the plot: identical twin siblings Viola and Sebastian are traveling by sea when a storm destroys their ship. Both survive, but neither is aware of the other’s fate. Viola arrives on the shores of Illyria where, out of necessity, she decides to disguise herself as a man. This sets in motion the events at the heart of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved — and most adapted — comedies.

Adaptations of Twelfth Night vary in faithfulness (and quality, one might argue), but Illyria, the Department of Theatre’s spring production, is unusual. With book, music, and lyrics by Peter Mills, and co-adapted by Cara Reichel, Illyria is a musical adaptation of Twelfth Night that strives to preserve the characters, plot, and language of the original. During rehearsals for Illyria, Director/Choreographer Jason Spelbring and Music Director Alex Marshall joined Aaron Swenson for a conversation about the challenges and joys of setting Shakespeare to music on stage.

AARON: I imagine that one of the worries when you’re adapting Shakespeare would be how to do it in a way that doesn't feel presumptuous or irrelevant, but it seems like this is an adaptation that really does stand up to the source material.

JASON: It's interesting to look at, Alex can maybe speak to the history of Shakespeare's plays made into musicals, like West Side Story. There’s a Loves’ Labor’s Lost that had a little bit of success, and Two Gentleman of Verona by Galt McDermot…

ALEX: And we have elements of Twelfth Night in All Shook Up, and Illyria, of course. There was a production of Twelfth Night in New York…a new musical that they did in the park in 2017 or 2018. So looking at Twelfth Night alone we've seen many modern takes in terms of American musical theatre.

JASON: You're right, but you’d think there would be more [Shakespeare]. I think it's a short list in comparison to the number of movies that are made into musicals.

ALEX: Are you saying that Shakespeare isn't as marketable as mainstream?

JASON: You would almost think it was more marketable, right? “Oh, that sounds like a familiar story, I read that in Honors English,” or something like that. But I guess Romeo and Juliet kind of stole the market with West Side Story.

AARON: And that raises the question: what are the obstacles when it comes to adapting something that people have traditionally encountered as homework?

JASON: Yes. Which is interesting, because I think that’s what Shakespeare does so well: reflect on human nature, reflect on people. And I think that anybody knowing that something was adapted from Shakespeare would lean into the fact that humanity is about to be explored, with people, love, and loss. But you're right, there are some actors that think, “Shakespeare’s so hard, I'm scared of it.” I'm hoping that those that love musicals and then realize [Illyria] is based on Twelfth Night might go back and think, “this is totally manageable. I understand what's going on…”

ALEX: And audiences, as well, can see a piece like this and recognize that these are very understandable emotions and experiences to which we all can relate, that we can find a way into the material and understand the complexity of what Shakespeare was creating in a medium that's a little bit more digestible to contemporary senses.

JASON: That’s a great point. Oftentimes contemporary directors directing Shakespeare-with-a-capital-"S" will put in a prologue in to help the audience understand who people are. But what [writer/lyricist/composer] Peter Mills and [co-adapter] Cara [Reichel] do so brilliantly… it's done for us when the characters sing. In Twelfth Night, we hear that Lady Olivia is in mourning for seven years because of the loss of her brother and her father before that. In this adaptation, Lady Olivia sings about her brother, missing her brother, the loss of her brother. And right after that, Viola — disguised as Sebastian — sings about the loss of her own brother. In the first five minutes, we're already seeing these worlds connected by just how amazingly strong and smart these women are. Most directors in contemporary Shakespeare will look for other ways to do that; it might be nonverbal, or they might use text from other Shakespeare plays. And our musical has it built in.

The other thing that I think we have not celebrated enough is that this, I believe, is a regional premiere. This show is not done very often. And the fact that the U is able to do a production of a musical in the state of Utah that has not been seen by other Utahns and other theatergoers in the Mountain West is pretty remarkable. That's kind of a rare thing, with Utah Shakespeare Festival down south and Pioneer right in the same yard. Shows are being done over and over again, and then universities are left with, “oh, they just did that” or “they did that two seasons ago.” Illyria hasn’t been done in this region.

Read the full interview here



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