When you see a show at the Williamstown Theater Festival, the first thought that runs through your brain usually isn’t, “In three years, I’m going to be sitting down with the writer of this show talking about how it’s going to be staged at The Old Globe in California.”
Or maybe it is, I don’t know. But we did see The Last Goodbye in 2010 in Williamstown out of shear love for a couple of key things — Jeff Buckley and Shakespeare. The Last Goodbye, you see, is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set to Buckley’s songs — a kind of hybrid-y jukebox musical wherein the elements of music and story seem like an inevitable fit for each other. (Like they’ve been on a collision course across the generations! Huzzah!) Also, when we saw it, Nick Blaemire closed the show with “Hallelujah,” which never hurts anything.
This new production in California will be directed by Alex Timbers. That also never hurts anything, although the minor fact of him being a director and not an actor means that we only see him in Vanity Fair and at fancy parties where he immediately runs away from us. But that’s a whole other article, and we digress.
Michael Kimmel, because we don’t have an awesome picture of him on hand, which really is a shame, is bespectacled and wears ties and has a tattoo about his little daughter on his arm. He looks like a writer. And we did this interview with him on a couch at Smash studios in Midtown Manhattan immediately following the band rehearsal for a Joe’s Pub show that Kimmel directed for singer-songwriter/musical theater up-and-comer Zoe Sarnak. (Which was awesome, incidentally.) We were surrounded by drums. There was a mural on the wall. And a chandelier.
The Last Goodbye it turns out, has had three workshops in the last year. Kimmel is mum about casting for any of them — and for The Old Globe production — but we did manage to pry out of him that Wallace Smith played the Prince in at least one of them. He did say, however, that the show would undergo significant changes from its last major public production in Williamstown. For one thing, it may go back in time. The Williamstown production had Romeo and Juliet wandering around a reality that looked a lot like the grafitied Lower East Side in the early nineties — the time when Jeff Buckley was playing small club gigs there on his way to superstardom.
The Old Globe production will have a more traditional bent. “We were so trapped by a couple of things that a modern setting does when you’re doing Shakespeare,” said Kimmel. “When you’re going back to period, you’re bringing swords back into it, for example. Modern makes the world smaller.”
One of way of making the world bigger was to hire Kate Waters — nicnkame: Kombat Kate, which is appropriately badass — a fight director from the UK working on this side of the pond for the first time. The results, said Kimmel, made a huge difference. “More than anything, I hate bad stage choreography. And this was like, visceral and scary. To the point of like, ‘Please don’t come that close to me. Someone’s going to get cut.’ But that opening fight gave us an entirely new framework for the piece.”
The music, however, will keep at least part of the show’s sensibility anchored in modern times. Kimmel mentioned that Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert, a fierce protector of her late son’s legacy, has been closely involved with The Last Goodbye almost since its inception. The first version of the show that Guibert saw included Kimmel performing the spoken parts himself while a friend played Buckley’s songs on an iPod. She not only greenlighted the project; she still says its her favorite version. Guibert even followed the show to Williamstown, where she attended rehearsals and gave notes. One of her early suggestions was to change the placement of the song “Lilac Wine,” which was sung by Juliet right before she took the poison. Guibert suggested that he use “What Will You Say” instead — a song that she said made her think about identifying her son’s body. Her involvement will continue with this new production.
But as much as the sweep and passion of Buckley’s music seemed like a natural fit for Shakespeare, Kimmel shrugs off the notion that Buckley’s life seems Shakespearean unto itself, despite his incredible rise to fame, and his tragic drowning death at the age of 31. Kimmel spoke of meeting many of Buckley’s friends and acquaintances. “That’s not the impression that I ever get from them. I think there’s something in the media that wants to make a tragic story more tragic. They’re looking for a narrative. There’s this perception of him as this tragic person, but the first thing that everyone says about Jeff is that he was hysterically funny. And really, I think of Romeo and Juliet as a hysterically funny play. That’s why you care about them. To me, the balcony scene is about two people who have no idea what they’re doing, and they’re failing spectacularly.”
Enter Alex Timbers, who does the whole comedy thing, and the whole period-but-in-a-modern-idiom thing pretty well. (And also, jokes that go on for too long but are still awesome. Plus, he has nice hair.) After Williamstown, Kimmel took a step back from the piece and decided that the best way to approach the show would be with a collaborator. “So much of the early part of The Last Goodbye was just me by myself in a room with a laptop and an iPod, and that’s how the whole show started. But collaboration is king. Alex became a fresh pair of eyes.”
As for the most important thing — Kimmel’s favorite Jeff Buckley song — he’s torn. “It changes. ‘Lover You Should Have Come Over’ — It’s amazing. But ‘Forget Her’ is the song I sing in the shower. When Jeff is riffing at the end? That’s me.”