O, Romeos, Romeos! Montagues and Capulets Take Manhattan

From Broadway to Off-Broadway, the play’s bounty is boundless

Romeo (Orlando Bloom) and Juliet (Condola Rashad) are coming to Broadway.

Romeo (Orlando Bloom) and Juliet (Condola Rashad) are coming to Broadway.

What light through yonder window breaks? And that yonder window? And THAT yonder window? The Montagues and the Capulets are back at it—only multiplied—and whole packs of them are dueling for your time and attention all over town.

The first of three revivals of Romeo and Juliet opens at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theater on Sept. 19—eight days before Classic Stage Company starts previewing its version of Romeo and Juliet for an Off-Broadway opening on Sept. 27 In addition to this star-crossed cluster, a musical adaptation, called The Last Goodbye, has also been in town, rehearsing for a West Coast launch at San Diego’s Old Globe on Oct. 6.

Why, suddenly, is love sweeping the country? Who can give you reasons/Who can tell you why? Not the folks behind these productions. They have adopted a we-were-here-first attitude, some actually feigning surprise that a rival version is around. And none seemed aware of a movie version of Romeo and Juliet dropping its anchor on these shores Oct. 11. English-made and adapted by Julian Fellowes with his unerring, Downton Abbey good taste, it stars quasi-knowns in the title roles (Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld) and better-knowns in support (Paul Giamatti and Stellan Skarsgard).

According to IBDB, Romeo and Juliet  was first sighted in New York on Jan. 28, 1754, at the New Theatre. That makes this the city’s 36th production—and the first in 36 years. Over the years, the title roles have been occupied by the greats with varying degrees of success: Maurice Evans and Katharine Cornell in 1935, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in 1940, Douglas Watson and Olivia de Havilland in 1951, John Neville and Claire Bloom in 1956 and the late Paul Rudd and Pamela Payton-Wright in 1977.

Age was never a criterion for the casting of the two lead roles. Brian Aherne thought that 34 was a little long-in-the-tooth to play a teenager and passed on the 1936 movie, only to be replaced by 43-year-old Leslie Howard. Juliet was Norma Shearer, 34, wife of MGM’s kingpin deputy, Irving Thalberg. The combined age of those teenagers: 77.

The last two feature film versions of Romeo and Juliet—Franco Zeffirelli’s rococo rendition in 1968 and Baz Luhrmann’s MTV-inspired one in 1996—were both, in their time, the highest-grossing Shakespeare film of all time. Zeffirelli unprecedentedly cast real teenagers—Leonard Whiting, 17, and Olivia Hussey, 15—although the director would doubtlessly have relented had his first choice for Romeo come through: 25-year-old Paul McCartney.

Among the current crop of the play, the Broadway version would, naturally, have you believe it’s the only game in town—notably, it did not cooperate with this article. It’s an interracial Romeo and Juliet—Orlando Bloom, in his Broadway bow, opposite Condola Rashad, fresh from Tony nomination No. 2 (for The Trip to Bountiful). Her parents, the Capulets, are played by Chuck Cooper and Roslyn Ruff, last seen Off-Broadway in an August Wilson play The Piano Lesson, and his by Michael Rudko and Tracy Sallows.

In charge of the production is David Leveaux, the 55-year-old English director who has contended—unsuccessfully, so far—for five Tony Awards (Jumpers, Nine, The Real Thing, Anna Christie and A Moon for the Misbegotten). A great one for trying out new things, he gave Broadway a somewhat goyim Fiddler on the Roof, as well as an Amanda Wingfield who frantically hustles subscriptions to The Homemaker’s Companion offstage, while daughter Laura calmly sets the table center-stage. When asked why he did the latter, he replied simply, “It had never been done before.”

Meanwhile, in the Off-Broadway version, Tea Alagic is calling the shots. The product of a mixed marriage, she hails from Bosnia and Sarajevo, and that fact weighs heavily on the production. “When I was 18 years old,” Ms. Alagic, now 40, said, “I had to leave my country because of a civil war that went on for four years. What’s left after that bloody war is a generation of people who left the country and also a generation who were born or who grew up during the war. In my country today, after 20 years, there’re still political and religious questions.”

This generational disconnect is the key to her production. “I’m looking at the play where there’s a big gap between the young and the old. The older people aren’t having a really honest relationship with their children.”

“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” has been an anxiety-ridden real question at CSC of late, ever since Finn Wittrock, the designated Romeo, caught a film and reneged. His replacement, a young actor fresh out of NYU, is Julian Cihi. Like the production’s designated Juliet, Elizabeth Olsen, he will be making his stage debut.

Somehow, newbies in the leads doesn’t double the pressure for Ms. Alagic, who’s thrilled about her new stage finds. “Elizabeth has a very natural approach to the character, which is the most complete female character in The Bard’s canon,” she said. “She goes from the young girl to a woman who absolutely takes responsibility for her action. There is the moment when she learns Romeo has killed Tybalt. She’s shocked at first and can’t believe it and even hates Romeo. Then, she turns that into ‘How could I say that?’ You know, absolutely, she’s with him. In that one scene, she grows so much and turns into a total woman. Elizabeth can do all that. She has that range.”

William Hurt is returning to his Off-Broadway roots as Friar Laurence; T.R. Knight, late of Grey’s Anatomy, is the fatally hotheaded Mercutio, and Daphne Rubin-Vega the nurse. “I wanted her to speak some Spanish,” Ms. Alagic said of Ms. Rubin-Vega’s casting. “She’s basically a mother to Juliet. They have an intimacy together, and I think her speaking Spanish to Juliet and Juliet doing the same back also confirms so much how purely she was raised by her and has no connection with her real mother.”

As for that musical version, The Last Goodbye, it’s the melding of the Romeo and Juliet story into the brooding songs of the late Jeff Buckley. Director Alex Timbers, who is taking on this musical conceived and adapted by Michael Kimmel, is, funnily enough, coming off his second new Shakespearean musical in a row, having just helmed a tune-up of Love’s Labour Lost this summer at the Delacorte.

“I think they go together uncannily well,” Mr. Timbers said of the Buckley/Bard mash-up. “The poetry of the music and the themes of the subject matter mesh beautifully. We’re retaining Shakespeare’s language and his period, then inserting the songs. Grounding it in that world allows a lot of the plot mechanisms and the context of the tragedy to make sense. It’s a big, butch-masculine world where people will take poison and blood oaths. Feuds exist.”

Jay Armstrong Johnson, who just had Hands on a Hardbody, is the musical Romeo, Talisa Friedman is Juliet, and Stephen Bogardus has drawn friar duty.

In early November, after a six- to eight-week run at the Old Globe, The Last Goodbye may say, “Hello, Broadway”—or not. “We have producers involved in this show, Hal Luftig and others,” Timbers said. “Assuming it goes well, they’ll tell us what the next step will be. That ranges from New York to another regional theater to workshop.”