Songs for the lovelornby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
For centuries, lovelorn souls have written letters addressed to "Juliet, Verona, Italy." They're writing to the heroine of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And for centuries, someone has been writing back. A production at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis takes a musical and theatrical look at "The Juliet Letters."
Minneapolis, Minn. — While Shakespeare did not invent the original tale of Romeo and Juliet, he certainly gave the story its legs. Actor Gary Briggle says from the beginning, savvy Italians took those legs and ran with them.
"People were making a pilgrimage to Verona, and asking where Juliet's house was," said Briggle. "The city fathers of Verona constructed a balcony, found a tomb, found a courtyard, created a ballroom -- anything the public wanted they provided, to enhance this mythic sense that the spirit of Juliet inhabited this place."
Juliet, the young girl who kills herself over love at a young age, has become something of a cross between Dear Abby and Santa Claus.
The show "Juliet Letters" is being performed by the Theatrical Music Company. Artistic director Jake Endres says people of all ages and from all walks of life write to Juliet, pouring their hearts out.
"They may feel a particular kinship to her because they are considering suicide," said Endres. "Or they may be in a love relationship that is unrequited or is somehow barred from happening. But at the same time there are people who write to her ... like American teenagers, who ask her for help with their algebra."
According to the book "Letters to Juliet," which served as a guide for Endres and Briggle, for many years a professor in Verona collected and occasionally answered these letters.
Now there's an official Juliet Club -- a group of women who respond to the many notes which arrive in Verona by mail, or are affixed to the wall of the now famous courtyard balcony, usually with someone's chewing gum.
Singer/songwriter Elvis Costello was inspired by the letters to create the song cycle "The Juliet Letters," in collaboration with the Brodsky string quartet. Gary Briggle says the results are a musical feast.
"It goes ricocheting from the late Beatles to Shostakovitch to Bartok, back to rock for string quartet, to elegaic pieces to comic vaudevilles," said Briggle. "The thing that attracted me as a singer/actor was that every single letter was written in a different musical style."
Endres and his Theatrical Music Company decided to take the musical work and give it a sort of narrative, with a staging that allows the characters to live and breathe for the length of their song.
They've added readings of other letters, and Endres set two more of them to music, including one from a soldier heading into battle in Vietnam.
"The Juliet Letters" runs this weekend and next at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Endres says audiences might come expecting something different from what they'll get.
"It's not so much about Juliet, and it's not so much about the letters," said Endres. "It's about our worlds and our collective need for this type of a figure. I like to think of her in terms of a type of modern Aphrodite."
Endres says Juliet's innocence and purity has charmed the world for more than 500 years. And isn't that something worth singing about?
- All Things Considered, 09/11/2008, 5:50 p.m.