Each Jan. 1, Washington kicks off its unofficial Sing Out Loud week, in which the theater faithful bust out their best Jackson 5 impersonations to sing a capella at D.C. favorites New Columbia Heights Theatre and Lang Theatre for a slightly more refined take on the genre. As we head into the holiday season, we’ll also know it’s opening season for the musical celebrations of Andrew Lloyd Webber. (On tap for the season, as well as in Washington, are your standard-issue royalty-themed shows, big orchestras, and lush staging, all available at the D.C. Center for the Performing Arts.) But this year, the first big go-round of the season, will feature something special: an entertaining symphony of Webber-derived songs mixed with everything from solo show tunes to works from the opera repertoire.
If you’re at all familiar with Webber, you’ll know he won’t be done with music right away. That’s just fine with Kim Ballentine, the artistic director of D.C.’s Shenandoah Shakespeare Theatre Company, where this season’s offerings include “Mary Poppins,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Richard III,” among others. As the artistic director of Shenandoah, she has been building up a web of musical connections between Shenandoah’s beloved Shakespeare Theatre Company and the larger classical-music universe. “When we started, I wanted to share this wealth of music and literature,” she says. “We have artists with a gift for storytelling, and through them, the past meets the present. There are artists who are singers, writers, directors, choreographers.”
Ballentine notes that Shenandoah’s partnership with the Washington National Opera dates back to 2012, when the Albany Shakespeare Festival partnered with WNO to present a staging of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” This year, Shenandoah will team with WNO for “School of Rock.” The show, based on the 2003 Paramount movie, will run from March 8 to 13. Another collaboration between Shenandoah and WNO will be an adaptation of Ben Jonson’s “The Taming of the Shrew” running from April 1 to 15.
We spoke with Ballentine about her musical connections, what distinguishes Andrew Lloyd Webber, and what makes Shenandoah’s musical productions unique.
How has Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music influenced your own musical choices?
It’s the most ubiquitous element of theater, but it’s also the most scrutinized. It’s not just one art form—it’s all of them. So what you can get from it is the amplification of all of them. It begins, I think, with “The Phantom of the Opera,” which ushered in a new age of classic operas by popularizing it for the wider audience. But even before that, I think, people were interested in classical music in theater because it lends itself to theatrical experiences. Theater is quite cinematic, and this music has cinematic qualities. It takes into account the rhythms of a world that you’re in and the ritual of a time that you’re in.
What makes your productions different from others in the genre?
Some of the musicals that we’re doing are more in the opera tradition, but they can also play in pop shows, musical comedies, or musicals with elements of classical music, for example “Phantom.” A few of them are opera-operatic–even “Phantom” is a much more theatrical approach to that than it might be in an opera house.
That genre really connects us to the work of Mozart, [Richard] Strauss, Berlioz, Lalo, the music of Mahler, we’re starting to put into it with “Phantom.” The other important thing is that opera as a tradition has tremendous depth. There’s some timeless morality, and the family dynamics, and the conflict of wills and the goodness and the badness of human nature. So even though “Phantom” is one of the most recognized works of the musical theater canon, I think that’s because of all the myth and myths and heartbreak and stories that surround it. It’s not just a musical about a man who goes crazy.