Arts & Entertainment

‘Being Alive’ reinterprets Shakespeare, Sondheim

Being Alive is a melodic collaboration of Stephen Sondheim’s musical genius with an innovative twist – all of the characters are black. It was created and directed by Billy Porter, who felt that not enough black people were involved with Sondheim musicals. “Billy hopes that this show changes people’s minds,” cast member Leslie Odom Jr…. Read more »

Being Alive is a melodic collaboration of Stephen Sondheim’s musical genius with an innovative twist – all of the characters are black.

It was created and directed by Billy Porter, who felt that not enough black people were involved with Sondheim musicals. “Billy hopes that this show changes people’s minds,” cast member Leslie Odom Jr. said.

Being Alive is the first musical to open in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s newest home on the Avenue of the Arts.

“They’re bringing an authentic African-American sound to classic Broadway music and putting it on the stage,” Bryan Terrell Clark, a Temple alum and Being Alive cast member, said. “It’s this weird hybrid. It’s really unique and really special.”

Being Alive is partially based on William Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man.” This famous soliloquy from the play As You Like It includes the famous line “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

“The poetry is so rich and so full,” cast member Chuck Cooper said. “[Shakespeare] does everything for you and all you have to do is touch the bases.”

Being Alive also reinterprets other Shakespearean works. In one scene, Clark delivers a monologue from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet with a hip-hop persona.

With raunchy dance moves and bluntly sexual dialogue, this musical appeals to a young audience. However, it also transcends race, gender and age by teaching people to love the rhythm and soul of life.

Being Alive incorporates all emotions of life – love, obsession, fear, passion, war, desire, heartache, hopelessness and longing – into a musical harmony that will give you the chills. You might even find yourself crying, as many audience members did Thursday night. This cathartic release from the audience can be accredited to the faculties of the actors, director and composer.

“Sondheim writes with such passion,” Clark said, “and has the ability to capture everyone’s story in one song, one scene.”

Clark didn’t have much experience with Sondheim prior to his role in Being Alive. He first became involved with the musical when he received a phone call from Porter. “I hear you’re fierce,” Porter told Clark. “Everybody says you’re fierce, and my show requires that specific skill set.”

Porter wanted Clark to “call him black” and he did, which is how he ended up in the new theater in Philadelphia. “I’m really glad to be back in Philly,” he said. “It’s a force to be reckoned with in terms of regional theater.”

His experience in Being Alive is unlike any he’s had in a production before. This is because Being Alive isn’t just a musical, but also a play. And in Being Alive, the cast members are singers and actors all at once. This was difficult for him because his character would have to behave one way in one scene and then become completely different in the next.

“The music comes out of those given circumstances,” he said. “You have to be very specific to when and how you’re contributing to the story.”

Musically, too, this was the hardest production for Clark. His voice was stretched from the highest of the highs to the lowest of his lows. His vocal capabilities are evident throughout the musical, but especially stand out during his favorite scene, “Something Just Broke.”

Clark admitted that his favorite part of Being Alive changed as he discovered more substance in the material. The script is so intense that he learns something new every night, and he and the other cast members change their interpretations of different scenes constantly, he said.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s decision to put the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on South Broad Street’s Avenue of the Arts is definitely in accord with Clark. “I think it brings what the Philadelphia Theatre Company has been doing to the forefront,” Clark said.

He said he believes the PTC has created astounding work for years, but that placing the new theater on the Avenue of the Arts makes the work more commercially accessible. And he likes that they kept the house small, with less than 300 seats, because it keeps the intimate setting that the PTC brings to the theater scene.

Being Alive is perhaps the most creative compilation of Sondheim’s work to date. It reminds you that no one is alone and nothing is more important than being alive. To the cast members and director, this rendition is not a matter of race, but instead a matter of humanity.

Being Alive plays in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre until Dec. 2. Make sure that before it ends, you are out, about and being alive.

Melanie Menkevich can be reached at melanie.menkevich@temple.edu.

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