That "light through yonder window breaks" spilled over the footlights of the Richard Rodgers Theatre Sept. 19 and into the first row of seats, revealing an unbroken line of giddy, grinning, seriously lustful ladies in a laser-like trance over the British heartthrob three feet away from them. This image, as much as anything on stage, best explained Broadway's latest edition of Romeo and Juliet — its first in 36 years.
Orlando Jonathan Blanchard Bloom, the object of their only-slightly-bridled obsession, was born the year of the play's last Broadway reincarnation — and, although he's now a couple of decades off the mark of the teenage Romeo Montague, he looks idealized — if not inevitable — as Shakespeare's love-struck young buck.
At the after-party held across the street at the Edison Ballroom, Bloom mustered a little dirt-kicking, aw-shucks modesty over the casting, making it seem like an accidental case of toppling dominos. "I wouldn't say it happened because of me," the actor said, correcting the wording of a reporter's question. "It was more my first encounter with [lead producer] Susan Bristow that led to a meeting with David Leveaux, the director, and it all sorta spiraled from there, but the genesis was that conversation that I had with Susan about doing something on Broadway. She asked what I'd been doing, and I said I'd done just a little bit of theatre with Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles,. And she said, 'We've been trying to do it for five years. Would you consider doing it?' So it was a bit organic and quite fortuitous."
Lest he sell himself short in the bravery department, it should be pointed out that this is not only his first Broadway endeavor; it's his first Shakespeare play as well.
"I have been terrified at different times in the process," he confessed, "but, to be honest, I was about as prepared as I could be. I went into the rehearsal room, having everything in my mind in terms of dialogue so that I could just play. I felt I needed that. "I know it sounds pretentious, but this play is vital. This language is vital. It's Shakespeare's ode to his youth generation. For us to bring it to our youth generation in 2013 is truly a privilege — something that requires, and deserves, the utmost dedication to do it justice. He's a phenomenal writer, and it's a privilege to speak this text every night. That's why I did it. I'm profoundly grateful for the opportunity."
His Juliet is a tad more experienced in the ways of Broadway, having been around that block twice, earning a Tony nomination both times ( Stick Fly and The Trip to Bountiful), but Condola Rashad had some serious drudging-up to do to get to the amour behind the armor. "I just kinda had to go back to what I was like when I was 14," she said. "It took a lot to do that because, as you grow older, you build a lot of layers — you get a lot of armor because you have to in this world. It was all about bringing all that back and going into a place where all I saw was love and I didn't know there was anything wrong with that. I had to honestly get back to that point."
Casting an African-American opposite a Caucasian in the title roles reduces the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets to black-and-white basics, but nowadays that sort of imported conflict registers more shrug than shock on the Richter scale.
"The funny thing is that I think Romeo and Juliet has often been done color-blind," Leveaux noted. "The point here was that once we'd found our Juliet, who was black—because family is so important in the play — I just followed my nose.
"The play needs no commentary from the director about interracial marriage because that's something that an audience brings with them anyway — and certainly there was nothing I could add to that complex narrative, but, having said that, I think it's exciting that an audience brings that with them, I didn't want to point arrows at it. She has a family and he has a family. As far as the tension is concerned, you never find out what the original argument was about. Shakespeare never discussed it. The fact that the Capulets are black and the Montagues are white gave both families a very distinct cultural center, which turned out to be very helpful and energetic."
This is not Leveaux's first time at the Romeo and Juliet rodeo. He directed a RSC version almost 20 years ago, so he knows what the play's greatest challenge is.
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"It's revealing the play as being as direct and present as Shakespeare was when he wrote it because plays like this, particularly this one, carry a weight of cliché about them, which has been built up over the years. A lot of that is 19th century in the sense that they think of the plays as being slightly soppy. What Shakespeare wrote were people living in a period when death was just around the corner. They had to sieze life urgently. So it's really about restoring the play's urgency, and from that, comes his clarity. People coming to this play may be coming to Shakespeare for the first time — a lot of young people are coming — so I was conscious that they need to see the connection with this language because it is the way Shakespeare wrote it.
"There's something about doing it on Broadway that is completely right. This is the best audience in the world to tell this story to. I knew we had to get it out of tights — out of the whole Elizabethan cliché of that — but I can't think of a better city to tell this story in. The great thing about Broadway is that it makes everything have a kind of urgency. It's right that Shakespeare's plays should be tested this way. To me, this is the most Elizabethan way you can do the play — to do it here on Broadway. I think it's close to the sensation of what it must have like for Shakespeare to do it in the Globe in those days when, by the way, people were ruthless, including his critics."
Next on Leveaux's agenda is a quantum leap into the computer age. "There's talk of doing Patrick Marber's play, Closer, in London. It hasn't been done for a while. I'm very keen to do that." And his next Juliet will be Juliette Binoche. "She and I are talking about doing a project together, and we're thinking about doing it on Broadway."
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"I played Romeo years and years and years ago — 30 years ago — but you never know how it's going to turn out, particularly with Shakespeare. Every time you do the play, it seems like a totally new play, no matter how many times you do it. I've played Hamlet a couple of times, and it was the same thing. The second time I did Hamlet, I went, 'Is this the same play I did before?'" Jayne Houdyshell has drawn Nurse duty before in Romeo and Juliet. "It was at a summer theatre in Petersburg, New Hampshire about 15 years ago," she recalled. "We did the whole play, uncut, with full-period regalia and accents. I much prefer this one, I think because of its cleanliness. It's pared down. A lot of cutting was done to the script so it flies. The story is very clear and to the point, and, because we can attack it with so much speed, it has a kind of life that I love. I really love it."
That ill-fated hothead, Mercutio, is aggressively advanced by Christian Camargo, who is clearly having a ball with the character. "I love the freedom of this character," he admitted. "You can go up, you can go down, you can go street-smart, you can go highbrow — it's got everything. It's the kind of character I just love to play and don't get a chance to do very much. The last Shakespeare I did was The Tempest. I played Ariel, and it was a fun kind of role, but it didn't have this kind of crazy freedom."
It was at the rehearsals of The Tempest that Camargo found his own Juliet — Juliet Rylance — playing Miranda. She once told a Post reporter it was "love at first sight. I walked in the room, saw him and thought 'Oh, there you are.'" She later told her husband she thought it was unromantic, but he contends that it's the most romantic thing he ever heard. And he's right. It's a sentiment worthy of a Sondheim song.
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Another of Romeo's buds — Conrad Kemp, a South African actor making his Broadway debut — happens conveniently to be one of Bloom's buds. "About a year ago, I did a picture with Orlando that hasn't been released yet, called 'Zulu.' We got on very, very well, both creatively and off-screen. Orlando dropped my name into the mix for Benvolio, and they found me — on IMDB, would you believe it? — got hold of my agent, so I put an audition to tape, sent it in and here I am, on Broadway!"
Others making their Broadway bows include Corey Hawkins, fresh out of Juilliard, as Tybalt and Carolyn Michelle Smith, a member of the ensemble understudying Roslyn Ruff's Lady Capulet. Neither felt particularly different after hitting this milestone. "Human is human is what I say. I'm just grateful to have this beginning to my career," said she. Said he: "The work is the work, on Broadway or Off-Broadway."
Tony winner Chuck Cooper, a commanding presence on stage as Lord Capulet, confessed that his most difficult scene is having to rage at Rashad. "It's really hard because she's so sweet, just sitting there looking with those doe eyes. No, it's not easy."
Phylicia Rashad and her ex, sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, were beaming like proud parents, even before the curtain went up. She was particularly cool and collected, betraying no sign of "Mama nerves." "I'm fine, very relaxed," she insisted.
Kenny Leon, who directed her to a Tony for A Raisin in the Sun, but assigned Diahann Carroll the part in his decade-later spring remake with Denzel Washington, said he will direct Rashad's "Cosby Show" son, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, in the first staging ever of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in October at D.C.'s Arena Stage. Charles Randolph Wright, who helmed Motown: The Musical across the street from the Richard Rodgers, said he also had a play bowing next month (Oct. 24) at the Arena Stage in Washington: Love in Afganistan. His companion, Maurice Hines, would be following him into the Arena with his show, Tapping Through Life. "We always tag-team," Wright cracked on their way into the theatre.
Sir Ian McKellen, wearing the only hat seen all evening (a straw one, at that) embraced Harvey Fierstein warmly on the red carpet. It was Fierstein's second time at R&J, a sign of support for Leveaux, who directed him in Fiddler on the Roof. Afterward, he planed to go over to the Hirschfeld, where Cyndi Lauper, his Tony-winning collaborator on Kinky Boots was hanging out after her world tour. Earlier he spent the day starting to cast his next opus, Casa Valentina, with director Joe Mantello.
Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox, late of Jeykll & Hyde, made the scene. His next project: "I'm doing my new club show downtown at The Canal Room, Back to the '80s, with Jessie's Girl. It's my new residence down there. You can check us every Saturday night at 8:00 and 11:00, starting this weekend."
In the long wait before The Iceman Cometh to BAM in January of 2015, Lee Wilkof is drumming up funds to direct a film called "No Pain Nudity."
Other first-nighters included Uzo Aduba, NBC's Al Roker and wife Deborah Roberts, Vinessa Shaw, Danielle Brooks, of “Orange Is the New Black," Kimberly and Tyson Chandler, Mamie Gummer, Dule Hill of the upcoming After Midnight, Tonya Lewis Lee, Jay Manuel, Lupita Nyong'o, Elliot Zimet, Michael K. Williams, Lorraine Toussaint and, lest we forget, Mrs. Bloom: Miranda Kerr.