BACKSTAGE: Feeling Closer to Shakespeare and Early Meryl Streep

Shakespeare First Folio, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library

Shakespeare is hitting the road — or at least his scripts are.

The first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published by two of his fellow actors (yes, he acted, too) in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death, is touring every state in the U.S. Connecticut’s stop will be at the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut at Storrs Sept. 2-25.

“It’s an amazing thing,” says Michael Bradford, the new department head of Dramatic Arts at UConn and artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre. “To have the real thing sitting in front of you: it’s tactile, it’s present, it’s a connection that we can track to that very DNA.”

For his students, he says, the free exhibit is like the Gutenberg Bible of theater.

The collection includes 18 plays that would otherwise have been lost, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors and As You Like It.

And what scene would he want to check out first?

“Oh, Richard III and that scene with Anne and Richard — it’s one of the most powerful scenes in history.”

Bradford says he’s stunned to think how close we were to not having these plays at all if someone didn’t think it would be a good idea to write them down. “If it had not been for that wisp in that moment of imagination,” he says, “all would have been lost.”

Connecticut Repertory Theatre keeps the Bard buzz going next month when it opens its season with King Lear, running Oct. 6-16.

Big NotesWhen you’re doing a revival of the musical Man of La Mancha, your first thought is do you have a leading man who can deliver the anthemic song, “The Impossible Dream?” With the casting of David Pittsinger (shown at right) as Don Quixote/Cervantes, Ivoryton Playhouse has no doubt. Pittsinger has created an impressive career in the opera world and, in recent years, the musical theater one, too. His voice was breathtaking singing those big-note songs in South Pacific last summer at the theater, located in the town where he resides. (He played the leading role in the Lincoln Center revival, too.)

“A lot of these classic musicals feel like they were written for me,” Pittsinger told me on a break from the opera of The Crucible at Glimmerglass.

During the golden age of musicals in the mid-20th century, Broadway stars like Richard Kiley and Alfred Drake “could have sung on the opera stage, too. But I don’t see that in the case of today’s musicals which require a different type of singing.” Fortunately, there’s plenty from the Broadway classics that Pittsinger can embrace. (He’s especially eager to do Sweeney Todd again.)

And to do it in his own community is especially meaningful, he says. He grew up in Clinton, worked at the Griswold Inn as a waiter and went to UConn for undergrad study and Yale School of Music for his Master’s degree. “My roots are very deep in Connecticut.”

Meryl Streep, center, as Constance Garnett, in The Idiots Karamazov at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven in 1974. Photo by William Baker, Courtesy of William Ivey Long

Early Meryl“I had the impression it had this Paris-in-the-’20s vibe,” says author Michael Schulman, of the Yale School of Drama in the mid-’70s when Meryl Streep was a student there, along with classmates such as playwrights Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato, actor Sigourney Weaver and costume designer William Ivey Long. Schulman learned it was anything but when he started doing research for his book, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. Wasserstein called it the “Yale School of Trauma” and Schulman’s book details Streep’s fraught New Haven days (she was on probation during her first year and later earned an ulcer) as well as her high school cheerleading period, her maturation at Vassar and her early career, leading up to her first Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer. “I didn’t want to do a traditional door-stop biography but rather to tell the origins of her story.” Meryl didn’t authorize the book, but she didn’t hinder his interviews with more than 80 friends, teachers and colleagues during that formative period in her life. And who would play Streep if there was a film version of those early years? “Who would dare play her?” he asks, laughing. Maybe one of her daughters, he mused — but which one? Meryl’s choice, we’d guess.

Theaters Vote To Abstain

Perhaps nothing on stage can compete with the real-life drama (farce?) of this year’s presidential election. Still, one would have thought Connecticut’s leading and Tony Award-winning theaters would put their stamp on things in the final weeks of the campaign.

Nope. Instead, Hartford Stage opens its season in September with the premiere Queens for a Year, about four generations of women who’ve served their country in the Marines clashing with each other. August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson follows in October to mid-November. Both are worthy works but not particularly connected with the election zeitgeist. Hartford’s TheaterWorks presents a new play about Albert Einstein, Relativity, in October, and over at Long Wharf Theatre there’s the premiere of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower. Both works look at the personal more than the political.

Yale Rep hints at something more politically connected with the premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince, which mixes 17th-century Stuarts — Charles I and Charles II — defending their divine rights and Jeb and George W. Bush battling for power, as siblings and statesmen as the playwright looks at “the cost of dynastic privilege.”

And those more nostalgic for another political era can check out Westport Country Playhouse’s revival of Camelot, the ’60s musical about King Arthur that wistfully evokes the more inspirational Kennedy era.

Heard Here and There

Fairfield’s Jonathan Tolins (writer of Buyer and Cellar) is next working on a docudrama based on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. … Look for the film adaptation of the Broadway musical American Idiot — with a screenplay by Rolin Jones and direction by Michael Mayer — landing at HBO. … Michael Wilson, ex-artistic director of Hartford Stage, will be staging the Broadway-bound revival of Night of the Iguana at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January. … Folks at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport are thrilled that the much-in-development film musical of The Greatest Showman on Earth, starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, is back on track. Zac Efron, Michelle Williams and Zendaya will co-star in the first original musical Hollywood has produced in more than 20 years. Look for it Christmas 2017.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.

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Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.