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The Jackson Repertory Theater is set to open its 2011 season in Jackson Heights with a performance of “The Sonnet Man,” an innovative blend of music and Shakespeare conceived by Broadway playwright Arje Shaw as a way of exposing young people to classical literature through a genre they know and love: hip-hop.
The concept for “The Sonnet Man” was dancing in Shaw’s head for 15 years before emerging into a long-anticipated reality last year.
Shaw’s vision was to successfully blend Shakespeare with hip-hop, and “The Sonnet Man” does just that. The group, which consists of rapper and lyricist Devon Glover, DJ Daniel Lynas and background vocalist Melissa Gutman, delivers a seamless fusion of hip-hop and Shakespearian sonnets, which are altered by a mixture of modern lyrics.
The balance of melodic beats and poetry draws a diverse audience that includes hip-hop lovers as well as Shakespearian aficionados. But perhaps the most powerful element of “The Sonnet Man” is the group’s ability to educate urban youth about classical literature through the fun and universal medium of music.
Brooklyn native Glover, 29, shines as the group’s frontman, along with the core group of Lynas and Gutman who performed with him on the self-titled debut album that was released last year.
On Jan. 6, Glover, Shaw and Guttman appeared on NBC’s “Today Show,” where they performed “Sonnet 18,” Glover’s favorite track from the album.
“I really wasn’t nervous about the performance. I feel like I was ready for it. But I was kind of nervous about the interview – I’m not used to interviews. It was surreal but a great feeling to be there,” Glover said.
Using music as an educational tool suits Glover, who currently works as an assistant after-school teacher and academic tutor. Whether it’s on stage or in the classroom, Glover’s main goal is to educate. He has one class to go before he earns undergraduate degrees in Mathematics and Education from Ithaca College.
“Whether I’m teaching Shakespeare or math, I just want to send a message,” Glover said. “The Sonnet Man” allows him to teach Shakespeare’s classic poems in a way that kids will more easily remember, because they are put to catchy beats.
The “Sonnet Man” songs are a collaborative effort. Glover, along with Shaw and Lynas, read through all of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnet poems. They select sonnets that resonate with them on an emotional level, or carry a universal theme. Glover said he reads about 10 sonnets per day, looking for inspiration.
“The ones that speak to me when I’m reading them, they are the ones that I’ll want to record because they are heartfelt,” Glover said. After selecting a sonnet, Glover brings it to the rest of the creative team. Shaw, Lynas and Guttman help arrange the sonnet to instrumentation, and Glover colors it with fresh lyrics. “Everybody adds elements to the sonnets,” Glover said.
“We try to think of the mood [Shakespeare] was in when he wrote each sonnet. If it’s a feel-good mood, we’ll put it to a happy beat, and if it’s a somber mood, we’ll do a more bluesy song,” Glover said.
“The Sonnet Man” has been going strong since gaining national exposure on “Today.” They recently performed a cabaret-style set with a full band at Triad in Manhattan, and Glover said a second album is in the works, though a release date hasn’t been set.
The upcoming performance at the Jackson Repertory Theater falls on the weekend before Valentine’s Day, so Glover said they will focus on performing love-themed sonnets.
“Shakespeare wrote a lot about love, and its Valentine’s weekend, so it will be special,” Glover said, adding that he admires the Bard’s technique of writing “with his heart on his sleeve” — a phrase he coined, incidentally, in the play “Othello.”
“I think it’s going to be a wonderful event, so I really hope there are a lot of couples who will appreciate it,” Glover said. “This is not your typical hip-hop. It’s smooth. This is music that might draw people closer together for Valentine’s Day,”
If You Go
The Sonnet Man
When: Feb. 12, 8 p.m.
Where: PS 69, 77-02 37th Ave.,Jackson Heights
Cost: $14 / $10 for students and seniors; tickets can be purchased at the door or online
More: “The Sonnet Man” album is available for download on iTunes or through the website
©2011 Community Newspaper Group
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