It’s almost a pity to ground Michael McElroy’s words in text when his everyday way of talking is so expressive and passionate. The director of “Sonnets, Soliloquies, and Soul”’s gesturing hands and ever-shifting facial expressions engaged me completely in his words, and I hadn’t even gotten around to seeing the run-through of the show yet. We surveyed the jumble of actors milling around below from the balcony of the Arthur Miller Theater and chatted about Shakespeare, soul music and how torn apart our world is today.
I have never been a fan of Shakespeare. To me, his work has always seemed to be something people attest to liking to prove their well-read character. However, McElroy’s words – along with the passionate, non-traditional mediums of song and modern dance with which the piece was performed — made the bard seem accessible at last.
McElroy got involved with acting in high school, and was cast in his first musical theater piece by Vincent Cardinal, director of the Musical Theater program at the university. He has done on and off Broadway performances, has been nominated for a Tony and currently teaches at New York University’s Tisch program. He is most comfortable as an actor and directs only because he must find a way to express his love of creating. Directing is a way to help display that creativity.
“Sonnets, Soliloquies, and Soul” takes the work of Shakespeare and makes it musical, using genres such as soul, gospel, R&B and pop. It will play in the Arthur Miller Theater at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, then 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, finishing with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday the 23. McElroy began writing the show by sitting down and looking at different Shakespeare sonnets, trying to find the thread of emotion that connected them. Shakespeare used to write for the masses, describing the elements that make humans tick and creating our concept of humanity as we know it. Hundreds of years later, he is still relevant; it must be for a reason.
Then, putting it all together, he asked himself, “Where’s that grain of truth in the human experience that can be articulated the same way but through a different lens?” That different lens, he decided, is African American music. With that, he sent out requests to friends to write a handful of songs for the show, even contributing some himself. All songs featured are originals intended for this piece. The cast is diverse enough in race, ethnicities and gender identities to be able to accurately use this music to bring across the theme: Love is universal, no matter who you are.
The piece is split into different parts. Some display the happy sides of the theme (“Blossoming Love” and “Eternal Love”). Some are sad, such as “Love Loss” or “Rejected Love.” “Self Love” sends a badass message of independence, especially directed at females.
The diverse theme is reflected through the range of the music. The audience experiences everything from Motown group-style singing, to soft R&B/pop, to hip-hop. Lines such as “cause baby, you are my summer’s day” makes the complicated language in Shakespeare accessible. The talented cast members make direct Shakespeare quotes feel everyday; the warm, casual tone makes it welcoming to the audience.
McElroy aims to find the intersection between Shakespeare’s times and now, mixing the classical with the modern, and finding the human themes that still resonate today. It is fitting that the show opens with the prologue from Romeo And Juliet, as McElroy intends for the piece to “hold a mirror up to the world in which we live.” McElroy resents the polarizing “you’re either with us, or against us” mentality of the world today. He hopes the audience will learn not to focus on their differences, and that this show will challenge the viewer to broaden their mind. As the timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes show, we are more alike than we are different.
Sonnets, Soliloquies, and Soul is on Feb. 20, 7:30 pm, Feb. 21 and 22, 8:00 pm, & Feb. 23, 2:00 pm at the Arthur Miller Theater. GA: $20, Student: $13