March 15, 2022

Directors' Notes: ILLYRIA Director/Choreographer Jason Spelbring & Music Director Alex Marshall

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, you might recognize elements of the plot: identical twin siblings Viola and Sebastian are traveling by sea when a storm destroys their ship. Both survive, but neither is aware of the other’s fate. Viola arrives on the shores of Illyria where, out of necessity, she decides to disguise herself as a man. This sets in motion the events at the heart of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved — and most adapted — comedies.


Adaptations of Twelfth Night vary in faithfulness (and quality, one might argue), but Illyria, the Department of Theatre’s spring production, is unusual. With book, music, and lyrics by Peter Mills, and co-adapted by Cara Reichel, Illyria is a musical adaptation of Twelfth Night that strives to preserve the characters, plot, and language of the original. During rehearsals for Illyria, Director/Choreographer Jason Spelbring and Music Director Alex Marshall joined Aaron Swenson for a conversation about the challenges and joys of setting Shakespeare to music on stage.



The cast ot ILLYRIAThe cast of ILLYRIA


AARON: I imagine that one of the worries when you’re adapting Shakespeare would be how to do it in a way that doesn't feel presumptuous or irrelevant, but it seems like this is an adaptation that really does stand up to the source material.


JASON: It's interesting to look at, Alex can maybe speak to the history of Shakespeare's plays made into musicals, like West Side Story. There’s a Loves’ Labor’s Lost that had a little bit of success, and Two Gentleman of Verona by Galt McDermot…


ALEX: And we have elements of Twelfth Night in All Shook Up, and Illyria, of course. There was a production of Twelfth Night in New York…a new musical that they did in the park in 2017 or 2018. So looking at Twelfth Night alone we've seen many modern takes in terms of American musical theatre.


JASON: You're right, but you’d think there would be more [Shakespeare]. I think it's a short list in comparison to the number of movies that are made into musicals.


ALEX: Are you saying that Shakespeare isn't as marketable as mainstream...


JASON: You would almost think it was more marketable, right? “Oh, that sounds like a familiar story, I read that in Honors English,” or something like that. But I guess Romeo and Juliet kind of stole the market with West Side Story.


AARON: And that raises the question: what are the obstacles when it comes to adapting something that people have traditionally encountered as homework?


JASON: Yes. Which is interesting, because I think that’s what Shakespeare does so well: reflect on human nature, reflect on people. And I think that anybody knowing that something was adapted from Shakespeare would lean into the fact that humanity is about to be explored, with people, love, and loss. But you're right, there are some actors that think, “Shakespeare’s so hard, I'm scared of it.” I'm hoping that those that love musicals and then realize [Illyria] is based on Twelfth Night might go back and think, “this is totally manageable. I understand what's going on…”


ALEX: And audiences, as well, can see a piece like this and recognize that these are very understandable emotions and experiences to which we all can relate, that we can find a way into the material and understand the complexity of what Shakespeare was creating in a medium that's a little bit more digestible to contemporary senses.


JASON: That’s a great point. Oftentimes contemporary directors directing Shakespeare-with-a-capital-"S" will put in a prologue in to help the audience understand who people are. But what [writer/lyricist/composer] Peter Mills and [co-adapter] Cara [Reichel] do so brilliantly… it's done for us when the characters sing. In Twelfth Night, we hear that Lady Olivia is in mourning for seven years because of the loss of her brother and her father before that. In this adaptation, Lady Olivia sings about her brother, missing her brother, the loss of her brother. And right after that, Viola — disguised as Sebastian — sings about the loss of her own brother. In the first five minutes, we're already seeing these worlds connected by just how amazingly strong and smart these women are. Most directors in contemporary Shakespeare will look for other ways to do that; it might be nonverbal, or they might use text from other Shakespeare plays. And our musical has it built in.

The other thing that I think we have not celebrated enough is that this, I believe, is a regional premiere. This show is not done very often. And the fact that the U is able to do a production of a musical in the state of Utah that has not been seen by other Utahns and other theatergoers in the Mountain West is pretty remarkable. That's kind of a rare thing, with Utah Shakespeare Festival down south and Pioneer right in the same yard. Shows are being done over and over again, and then universities are left with, “oh, they just did that” or “they did that two seasons ago.” Illyria hasn’t been done in this region.




AARON: Which is interesting, because it seems like TWELFTH NIGHT has one of the more popular Shakespeare stories—the way it's been adapted into other works, the way that it's been featured in pop culture....


ALEX: She's the Man.


AARON: Exactly.


JASON: No, you're right. And I said to the cast the other night, “no one's going to come and be humming these songs,” or say, “oh, I loved it when I played this in high school.” It's like that Shakespeare in Love scene where they all see Romeo and Juliet for the first time and everybody's gasping and they're terrified about what's happening because it's all brand new. Every musical theatre nerd is going to be like, “what is this play?” Get ready, Alex. Your entire program is going to be singing “The Lady Must Be Mad” and “Patience” for the next couple of years for auditions, because there is some really beautiful music here that, since 2002 — I think it was first produced in 2002 — has been largely ignored.


ALEX: Trevor [Assistant Music Director] and I have had long discussions about this music, that it has a really dense complexity in it that we don't often see in musical theatre. It's something we see more in the likes of writers like Sondheim and Adam Guettel, where it isn't just pop songs or easily written forms. There's a lot of detail and nuance in how Peter Mills uses harmony to accentuate different emotional events, or how he uses key structures or forms or unexpected modulations to heighten the drama in ways that amplify what is going on within the characters.


JASON: And I'll piggyback on that, because it makes it a gem of a musical to direct from an actor's perspective. Each beat or section or unit has a very specific reason, so for motivating an actor to make a cross, or to be in stillness for a couple of verses…the lyrics can and do stand on their own with the music behind them, because [Illyria] is written the way it should have been as a musical. I hope people are pleasantly surprised by how charming it is, but also how complicated and beautiful it is at the same time. And it’s nice to know that it's in that rare category of a Shakespeare piece [directly] based on Shakespeare.


AARON: What else would you like for people to know in advance, that they can bring with them to the theatre?


ALEX: Well, if they have a chance to read the play or watch any of the many iterations of Twelfth Night just to be familiar with aspects of the storytelling, that's wonderful.


JASON: I think it’s worth mentioning that we have the musicians on stage in our production. They’re part of the story, not only because there are a couple of moments where one of the characters says to stop the music. I literally have Alex handing props to an actor. You're not going to hear the orchestra piped in from behind a panel — they're in the room, sharing space with us. Music is very important in this production, and not just because [Illyria] is a musical, but because [Twelfth Night] is Shakespeare’s most musical play out of all of his plays in the canon.


ALEX: It’s important to remember that in Shakespearean times we're coming out of Renaissance music into Baroque music. We're transitioning to music produced for more secular purposes. When they did these plays, they would have a boy playing a lute on stage. Music is fundamentally integrated into the performance.


JASON: Yes — “The Inner Above” of the Globe [Theatre] was designed specifically for live musicians. I think it’s also important to differentiate between Twelfth Night or What You Will and the fact that Peter Mills entitled this Illyria. It’s a celebration of the location, so we're focusing on this place where people get to audition a feeling and see if it gets a callback. And if it doesn't, then they move on to the next thing — or if they book the gig, they get a wedding out of it. But it's a place where people are authentically themselves in the moment they are in.

And I have to say, Aaron, we could talk about this for hours, but the other piece of this is the support around sound, set, lights, and costumes...the half hour before Alex and his team come out will be a soundscape for the audience to sort of feel like they're getting into this world.  Each of the orchestra members has their own platform — maybe a couple are shared, but each one has their own light. They're part of the story, physically and tactilely and visually.


AARON: Alex, what does that do for your experience of the show?


ALEX: If we're talking about creating a sense of Illyria being this wonderful place that invites us into these excellent stories, it kind of shifts the position of the fourth wall. I think seeing pit musicians underneath the stage with a conductor's head poking up kind of separates the musicians from what's going on in the story. And here it feels integrated in a way that helps immerse the audience, because everything that they're seeing and hearing is, in a sense, diegetic — it exists within the world of the show. [Illyria] has the opportunity to blur the fourth wall so much that our audience feels a part of that world, that they're invited in in a way that maybe they aren't in a traditional proscenium show.


JASON: You're right, Alex. It's almost like theatre in the round, with the orchestra being part of both the company and the audience. We’re making it feel like everybody's part of the story. Blocking-wise, we’re using the aisles as vomitoriums — action comes right along the side of the audience and onto the deck. The exposure that Illyria has… it's revealing everything about everyone all the time. No one can hide behind anything because if you get behind a door, it just swings open or it's on wheels. All the surfaces are reflective. All the props light up, the food is all glowy. It just feels like another world. We're taking the title and creating a world.


AARON: And when they leave that world, what do you hope the audience takes with them?


ALEX: I think really great theatre engages us to help us understand why we make the decisions we make or why we choose to operate our lives in a certain way. I hope they walk out armed with better ideas of how to be a better human — how to understand another person’s circumstances, how to be more compassionate and use these relationships as a framework for finding that compassion. I hope that what we're presenting in terms of what's on stage, in terms of what they hear in the music, is enough for them to go away thinking about these questions.


JASON: That was brilliantly said. I want to dovetail that — and I might totally mess this up — but even if they don't know Twelfth Night, I feel like the work that's being done stands alone. If they are willing to lean in for the two hours and [twenty] minutes that they are in Illyria, they're not going to get lost.

I think a lot of people are afraid of Shakespeare because they feel like it's over their head. And I think what this production does is…if they know Shakespeare, that is amazing. There are so many jokes that, if you know Twelfth Night, you're going to be the person in the audience that's giggling a little bit louder. But if you don't, it's not going to ruin the play for you.


AARON: So, what I hear you saying is that people should come more than once.


ALEX: Yes.


JASON: They should come every night. People are going to see themselves in the characters. There's going to be somebody up there telling their story, and every audience member is going to go, “oh my gosh, that's me” or “that's my uncle,” or “I was in that situation where I was vulnerable, and I got shut down.”  They're going to feel the feels. It's all in there.


AARON: Agreed, and I think that’s a perfect place to stop. [ILLYRIA] really is such a lovely adaptation, and I’m so excited for other people to see this production and fall in love with it too. Thank you, both of you.


ALEX: Thank you.


JASON: Thank you.




ILLYRIA opens Friday, March 25 in the Babcock Theatre

Live performances March 25 - April 3

For tickets and info, visit our show page at