By Daniel Koontz
Anyone who has ever been in love identifies with “Romeo and Juliet,” but over time the teenage, all-encompassing first love depicted in Shakespeare’s play might become less visceral to us as the experience recedes into the past. And many have had the unhappy experience, like Romeo and Juliet do (to an extreme), of having their young love face strong disapproval from their families, but then the passage of time tends to resolve that disapproval in one way or another.
Rock superstar Pat Benatar and her husband, Neil Giraldo, after 40 years together, still identify strongly with “Romeo and Juliet.” So much so, in fact, that they’re developing a musical based on the play.
Called “The Romeo & Juliet Project,” the show is coming to Sag Harbor on Friday and Saturday, August 16 and 17. Presented by Bay Street Theater and Guild Hall, these free concert performances of “The Romeo & Juliet Project” will take place under the stars at Mashashimuet Park starting at 7 p.m.
“People were always saying that we were like Romeo and Juliet,” Giraldo said in a recent interview.
As a guitarist and songwriter, he admitted that he had no experience with theater, and so had no basis for assessing the comparison. Conversely, Benatar, who grew up doing musicals and who early on considered a career in opera, explained the connection.
“In 40 years together, 37 married, there’s not a day that something from the outside doesn’t come in to try to tear us apart,” she said, noting that, just like in “Romeo and Juliet,” “All of the conflict comes from the outside.”
Even so, the idea of using Benatar’s hard rocking hits — songs like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Heartbreaker,” “Love is a Battlefield” — to help tell the story of the star-crossed lovers might not seem like the most obvious one, and it’s not where Benatar and Giraldo began the process.
“We started four or five years ago talking about doing a jukebox musical,” said Giraldo, noting that the allure of such shows — narrations of the lives and careers of well-known performers interlaced with their hit songs — for him revolves around the surprising backstories that get revealed.
“I love that moment of, ‘I had no idea!’ Something wild that you didn’t know before.”
But there seemed to be a saturation of jukebox musicals, so Benatar and Giraldo reconsidered the idea.
What they’ve arrived at now, “The Romeo & Juliet Project,” is actually the current iteration of a musical devised by Bradley Bredeweg, a veteran theater and television producer.
“Bradley was doing it on his own, and we actually shut down his production,” Benatar laughed, noting that she and Giraldo didn’t give him permission to use their songs.
This was back when she and her husband were still working on their straightforward jukebox musical idea, and they didn’t need the competition. Later, when they decided to change gears, they contacted Bredeweg again.
“Thankfully, he’s a good sport, and we all work really well together,” she said.
The overlaps Benatar and Giraldo identify between their own lives and the Romeo and Juliet story, in a way, make “The Romeo & Juliet Project” a novel hybrid between traditional musical theater and jukebox musical.
In telling the story of Romeo and Juliet, they are revealing their own backstory.
There is a long tradition of altering and manipulating Shakespeare’s plays, and “The Romeo & Juliet Project” joins this tradition — and not just because it interpolates Benatar’s music, although that’s an important factor in how this version of the play evolved.
That’s because Benatar’s music, from her earliest hits in the late 1970s and early ’80s, always had a strong, feminist perspective — something fairly absent in Shakespeare’s play.
Benatar agreed with this interpretation of her work as a feminist.
“Growing up, there was nothing in my home that ever demonstrated that there was any difference between the genders,” she said. “It was just being that age at that time, daughter of the first generation of feminists. I’m not an activist — my way is to do it through music.”
Take a Benatar hit like “Treat Me Right,” from 1980. The music projects strength, the lyrical point of view crackles with confidence and authority. Like a lot of Benatar’s best-known music, the song has very little trace of vulnerability or emotional dependence. The woman in the song is ready to leave her man without shedding a single tear.
So how does a song like “Treat Me Right” fit in with “Romeo and Juliet” in which (spoiler alert!) Juliet would rather die than live without Romeo?
“Oh, we changed it,” Benatar said of the play. “Juliet has been augmented into a warrior at the end.”
Without giving away that ending, Benatar made it clear that the Juliet in their version is not the powerless, vulnerable victim of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Giraldo said he has been shocked at how well Benatar’s preexisting music syncs up with their revised version of Shakespeare’s story.
“Honest to God, it seems like the play was written for these songs; they just match up so well,” he said.
Not that the songs didn’t need some tasteful rearranging. But that’s been one of Giraldo’s roles, going back to the very start of his association with Benatar.
“The songs are what they are,” he said, meaning that, as solid songs that work musically, they will continue to work even after changes of instrumentation, character and mood. This has given him the flexibility to fit songs into context and to create musical variety.
“My job is to make sure that the music is eclectic — that’s what I like to do,” he said.
In fact, Giraldo would like to go further than he already has.
“It’s not going to be in its ultimate place,” he said of the play. “It’s going to be much more eclectic than this.”
“The Romeo & Juliet Project” presented at Mashashimuet Park will be a work in progress, the performances giving Benatar, Giraldo, and the rest of the creative team a chance to see how well their ideas are coming together. Putting it out there before a live audience is a crucial step in the process.
As for the process thus far, Benatar couldn’t be happier.
“I see this as an opportunity to make ‘Romeo and Juliet’ more relevant to today,” she said. “I love how amazingly the music works with the story. It’s been a joy!”
“Under the Stars: The Romeo & Juliet Project,” presented by Bay Street Theater and Guild Hall is offered at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, August 16 and 17, at Mashashimuet Park, Sag Harbor. Admission is free. Special VIP seating available for August 16 performance only, $85 per person ($150 per couple) which includes a chair, a boxed meal, and a choice of wine or water. For more information and reservations for VIP seating, visit baystreet.org.
The cast includes Alex Nee as Romeo; Ashley Argota as Juliet; Judy McLane as Madam Capulet; Darlesia Ceracy as Madam Montague; Matt Doyle as Paris; Howard McGillin as The Friar; Jordan Kai Burnett as Benvolia; Carson Higgins as Tybalt, Natalie Masini as Nura; and Jamar Williams as Mercutio.