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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