Alex Timbers, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Talisa Friedman Talk Shakespeare and Song in Jeff Buckley Musical The Last Goodbye

By Evan Henerson
20 Sep 2013

Choreographer Sonya Tayeh and director Alex Timbers
Choreographer Sonya Tayeh and director Alex Timbers
David Gordon

Playbill.com chats with the director and stars of The Last Goodbye, the new musical fusing Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with music by Jeff Buckley.

Try, only try, to find a theatre type — creative or thespian — who doesn't possess some kind of connection to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It's harder than it looks, and not simply because the folks we're asking happen to be up to their eyeballs in Montagues and Capulets during this the season of high-profile productions of Romeo and Juliet.

Biting into the immortal lines of Act 2, scene 2 — AKA the "Balcony Scene" — during a final callback audition, Talisa Friedman came to a distressing realization and therefore made sure to take her time and get the most out of every syllable.

"I remember having this moment of knowing it was probably the last time I would get to say these words for at least a very long time," recalled Friedman. "So I remember taking my time and observing that experience because it was so special to me."

Was she an R and J devotee? Big time.

"I read it in 9th grade English which was the perfect time since I was Juliet's age," said Friedman. "It was an explosive experience, because I was going through lot of what she was going through, discovering myself as a person, and you've got your hormones and your sexual level and everything. I was just smitten with it. I saw every movie version and I saw a fantastic production at the Folger when I was 15. It's always been my dream part."

Not to worry. She got the part, although for this particular rendering of Juliet, Friedman would have to handle a ballad as dexterously as a couplet. The Last Goodbye, a musical mash-up of Shakespeare and the songs of Jeff Buckley, swaps out all that balcony banter for the duet of the unrecorded number "All Flowers in Time."

Talisa Friedman
photo by Matthew Murphy

Following a much buzzed-about production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2010, this latest incarnation of The Last Goodbye, conceived and adapted by Michael Kimmell and directed by Alex Timbers, has its West Coast premiere at San Diego's The Old Globe, with previews beginning Sept. 22.

Friedman's hardly the only one in San Diego with a long-standing Romeo and Juliet itch.

Her Romeo, Jay Armstrong Johnson (Hands on a Hardbody), may have trained in musical theatre rather than the classics, but the tale and the role of Romeo has a resonance with him as well. As a 5th grader in Mr. Ingraham's class at Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, TX, young Johnson took on the role of Romeo for the first time and subsequently decided that the actor's life was for him.

"The role and the play keeps popping up into my life," said Johnson. "I did a student-run production in college and scene study when I was 14. (The Last Goodbye) feels like my biggest break so far."

Even Timbers has a Capulet vs. Montague in his dramatic past. At Yale University, Timbers appeared in an immersive production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Lucca Borghese, that had audiences following the action in and out of alleyways, over patios and across three floors of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life.

Jay Armstrong Johnson
Photo by Matthew Murphy

"People are often always playing around trying to figure out ways to enliven Shakespeare's works and have you see them anew," said Timbers. "I think in this country, people tend to view Shakespeare in a really progressive manner. "

Timbers, of all people, should know. The fast-rising founder of Les Freres Corbusier, who has earned Tony nominations for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, Timbers is hot off his musicalized version of Love's Labour's Lost presented as part of the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park this past summer. He will also direct the new Broadway musical based on the Academy Award-winning film Rocky, which will feature a score by Ragtime Tony Award winners Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. 

Given the way Buckley's songs function within The Last Goodbye, often replacing large amounts of texts, this new production is more musical mash-up than the Shakespeare enhanced that Timbers and Michael Friedman did with Love's Labour's Lost. The world of The Last Goodbye, according to its director and players, is dark, masculine, almost "butch," a place of violence, greed and hatred.

The SoCal-born Buckley didn't produce a crush of songs in his tragically abbreviated life (he drowned in the Wolf River in Memphis at age 30), but Kimmel discovered that many of the songs in oeuvre seemed to dovetail seamlessly with Shakespeare's plot. Romeo can croon "Forget Her" to try to get himself over being dumped by Rosaline at the beginning of the play. Overlooking Tybalt's funeral procession, Juliet can think of her husband-to-be and sing "Lover You Should've Come Over."

"The Friar weds them and 'New Year's Prayer' is played," said Timbers. "It's a song that's really advocating revolution, and the love between the Capulets' daughter and the Montagues' son is a love that could spark a revolution. There are a lot of ways that the text and these songs work together that go beyond just the messaging of the songs. There's a real shape and arc to it."

The play will not be set present day or in the 20th century, although viewers shouldn't expect pumpkin pants or tunics either. "It definitely exists in a world in which there isn't much explanation needed," said Timbers. "People would take potions and consider vows and oaths sacred. That was important to me. I want to be really clear with production. A lot of Shakespeare might try to be set contemporary for relatability. I had some specific period ideas and themes that refract in interesting ways.

"To me what's interesting is watching the addition of Buckley," he continued. "I didn't want to be doing somersaults explaining what an apothecary was or who the Montagues are."

As is the case with his cast, Timbers says his admiration for Buckley's talents has grown substantially over the course of The Last Goodbye, which the creative team hopes will be performed in New York in the future. 

"The guy had this incredible range in his voice," said Timbers. "A lot of people of my generation are Jeff Buckley fans and that's why when I heard the concept of The Last Goodbye, it seemed so smart. The poetry of the Buckley lyrics and they have these huge almost operatic themes of loss and first love and mourning. They just fit so well."

"It's not your stereotypical musical theatre pop score," agreed Johnson. "It can get very deep and dark, but also be hugely uplifting. Jeff's music elevates this to a level that I would never knew was possible with such an iconic story."