SAN DIEGO — At the end of a rehearsal last month in a room near the Old Globe, actor Brandon Gill as Benvolio presided over the death of Romeo and Juliet and sang in a keening wail, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
Those words, part of a Leonard Cohen ballad that Jeff Buckley helped make famous, might have applied to the play’s circumstances as well. “The Last Goodbye” is a musical combining Shakespeare with the songs of Buckley, an artist who grew up in the Southland and went on to amass a worldwide following before he died at age 30 in a 1997 swimming accident.
As such, it offers a bittersweet pairing of two artists: one whose canon ranks among Western civilization’s deepest, and another who had barely begun assembling his.
“The Last Goodbye” will open Oct. 6 an hour or two’s drive from some of the key sites of Buckley’s life: Loara High School in Anaheim, which he and his father, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, attended; the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, where the younger Buckley studied; the now-defunct Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, where he watched his estranged father perform.
“I’m sure there will be lots of people who’ll remember him in person and be there to see it and also some folks who knew of Jeff’s music back when he was alive who will come to see what we’ve done,” said Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert. “I can’t blame anyone for being skeptical at the notion, because I was. But I hope they do dare to come and see what we’ve done.
“I think the Bard would be proud, and I think Jeff would think it rocked.”
It’s not uncommon to put a modern twist on the Bard: UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare Festival this summer set “King Lear” in prehistoric times and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at an East Coast prep school; Joss Whedon’s recent “Much Ado About Nothing” film took place in modern-day Santa Monica.
Still, when playwright Michael Kimmel conceived the idea of setting “Romeo and Juliet” to Buckley’s music, it wasn’t simply out of a desire to be original. He was listening to Buckley’s song “Forget Her” when the lyrics — “Her love is a rose, pale and dying” — reminded him of Romeo’s longing for Rosaline, the unseen character whose place Juliet fills.
“When Jeff creates an image lyrically, it sounds very much like when William Shakespeare creates an image with text,” Kimmel said. “Now, the vernacular is different, obviously, but the language and the rhythm and the intent all feel the same.”
Kimmel sketched out a script with a handful of tunes woven into the text. To get permission for the music, though, he needed to win over Guibert, the executor of her son’s estate. She was skeptical about the idea at first but agreed to meet him at a theater in New York.
The first run-through was spartan. Kimmel sat on a stool with a three-ring binder and read the script while a friend in the sound booth piped tunes over an iPod.
“As he read through the first script and gave the cues to the songs, I was suddenly, really sort of stunned at the aptness of the application of those songs and how they might tell the story in a new way, with a new passion,” Guibert said. “I just sat there in awe.”
After getting Guibert’s blessing, Kimmel introduced his concept in a series of readings, with the cast reciting the work accompanied by a small band.
In 2010, the musical had its first full production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Reviews varied; the Albany, N.Y., Times Union called it “brilliant,” while Variety panned it as “a confused, careless and under-conceived work that would require a major do-over if it were to get out of the Massachusetts Berkshires.”
Now it’s out of the Berkshires. Kimmel, who saw room for improvement in the Williamstown version, partnered with director Alex Timbers to rethink the production, and two years of workshops followed.
Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein had been following the development of the production when he was director of the Shakespeare Initiative at the Public Theater in New York. He’d met with Kimmel early on to talk about adapting Shakespeare for a musical, and he made a mental note when he heard that Timbers, a friend from their Public days, had come aboard.
Timbers has had a string of high-profile projects lately. In addition to the well-received David Byrne musical “Here Lies Love” about Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, this year at the Public Theater, Timbers also directed the musical version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” for Shakespeare in the Park this summer.
That musical adaptation was much different in tone, Edelstein said. “There was much less text used, and because Alex wrote a lot of the text, it was cheeky, ironic.” He calls “The Last Goodbye” more “emotionally engaging.”
Timbers is perhaps best known for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which had its first full production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre before it moved in 2010 to the Public and then to Broadway. He co-directed the Tony-nominated “Peter and the Starcatcher,” based on the Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson novel. He is also co-director of the national tour of “Peter,” which is part of the Ahmanson’s 2013-2014 season.
When a new musical of “The Honeymooners” dropped out of the Old Globe’s season, Edelstein got in touch with Timbers through Facebook to see whether “The Last Goodbye” needed a home.
Once the production landed at the Old Globe, “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer Sonya Tayeh, who worked on the original production of “The Last Goodbye,” returned, and English fight instructor Kate Waters — a.k.a. Kombat Kate — came on board to train the actors for confrontation scenes.
One of the main changes the team made was to make the show less modern. The previous version used contemporary costumes and scenery; the Old Globe production boasts a set design of stone arches along with clothing that hovers around the Elizabethan and Victorian eras.
The intent, Timbers said, was to evoke a general sense of the past rather than a specific time.
“My idea was to make it period and to not then have to jump through hoops to sort of explain why there’s an apothecary and why these families are feuding and all this stuff,” said Timbers. “So it’s set period,” he said. “When I say it’s set period, I don’t mean it’s tunics and pumpkin pants.”
The revamped “Last Goodbye” also includes a different song lineup than its predecessor. Instead of “Dream Brother,” the Capulets’ party features “Witches’ Rave,” which Kimmel said made a livelier production number.
The title song, heard only in snippets in Williamstown, figures prominently in the new version: The young lovers sing it after a night together, and Romeo reprises it during his death scene.
Although it would take an intense search to find a theater patron who doesn’t know how “Romeo and Juliet” ends, those who enter the Old Globe with a casual knowledge of Buckley’s catalog may find a surprise or two. Even Kimmel found himself stumped at least once: He hadn’t heard the song “What Will You Say,” which came out posthumously, until Guibert played it for him.
Like James Dean and Buddy Holly, Buckley left a catalog that consists of a handful of finished products and plenty of fragments and what-ifs. His one completed studio album, “Grace,” came out in 1994; “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk,” a selection of tracks from the album he was working on before his death, followed in 1998. Later years brought live recordings, compilations, a box set of EPs.
Critic David Browne, whose book “Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley” came out in 2001, surmises that Jeff Buckley would have endured as a prolific — and risk-taking — performer if he had lived.
“I think he would have been one of those people known in the music business as a career artist,” Browne said. “He really worshiped people like Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, who, even by the mid-'90s when he was starting out, had been around a long time and had a long and varied career. I think a lot of us saw him as an inheritor to that tradition and the tradition of someone who kind of follows his or her muse in any number of ways.”
So how might Buckley’s career have developed? Kimmel, for all his hard work, would trade “The Last Goodbye” to find out.
“I love this show,” he said. “It’s been a part of my life for years. I’m sitting in San Diego talking to you because of this show. But as a fan, I would give that all up. I would have loved to have heard the music Jeff would have made in his 40s and his 50s.”