Jeff Brooks took drama class in high school in the hopes of getting an easy A to boost his GPA.
Well, an easy A it was not. But it showed Brooks he had an undiscovered passion for theater, which was new since he was more involved in athletics like baseball and wrestling.
He landed the lead in his first play, a production of Mrs. McThing, and noticed everyone seemed to like what he did with his performance, leading him to reconsider his career path.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional wrestler,” he laughed, “so I thought maybe I should look into this.”
One thing led to another, and he got involved in local theater in his native Portland, Ore., as well as Shakespeare festivals and countless productions of plays by The Bard. He’s played Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway and in the touring company among many, many other roles.
Now, he continues his passion for Shakespeare by taking the stage as Shylock in the touring company of Something Rotten! So if you’re a fan of Shakespeare and musicals, get thee to a nunn- — er, the Academy of Music, when the production comes to town Feb. 24 to March 4.
This Shylock is a bit of a departure from his Merchant of Venice namesake. A comic character, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender — the only job he is allowed to have as a Jew — with a passion for theater.
He wants to produce a new musical by brothers Nigel and Nick Bottom who are struggling to become accomplished playwrights in 16th-century London while Shakespeare (Rent’s Adam Pascal) steals all the thunder.
They eventually try to beat The Bard to the punch with Omelette: The Musical, as a soothsayer suggests the next big thing in theater will be a show in which the actors speak and sing, but he also wrongly predicts that Shakespeare’s next hit will be called Omelette. (Alas, that was not to be and it was instead Hamlet.)
“[Shylock] loves the theater. He wants to be involved in theater; he wants to pursue something artistic and something that he really is excited about,” Brooks explained, but the threat of punishment for doing something perhaps illegal looms. Many Jews had been expelled from England at the time and were not viewed positively.
“That’s actually a fact, at that time, Jews were hanged if they were doing something that was considered something they shouldn’t be doing by the authorities,” Brooks said. “So it’s a comedy, but there’s a dark truth to that.”
And while Shylock makes a reference to a pound of flesh early on, Brooks said, the audience will quickly realize he is a comic character.
Merchant is classified as a comedy, but Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock isn’t always funny.
“Shylock’s portrayal as a moneylender is often interpreted as anti-Semitic,” a myjewishlearning.com article noted. “But money-lending was a common profession of Jews in the 16th century, so the very fact that Shylock is a moneylender is probably not anti-Semitic. However, Shylock’s greedy and vengeful character might be based on anti-Semitic stereotypes — and might also perpetuate them.”
Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity by the play’s end, and despite his humanifying speech — “Hath not a Jew eyes?” — he is vilified by many.
Shakespeare was certainly tough on Shylock, Brooks said.
“Some people think Shakespeare actually was very sympathetic toward him. I’m of the opinion that Shakespeare was a person of the time he lived in,” Brooks said, pointing to the anti-Jewish attitudes of the time. “As much as he was forward-thinking and had a huge, broad spectrum of thought, he also was a product of the time he lived in.”
Luckily, Shylock is treated a bit differently in Rotten, which is rounded out by a company Brooks — who is not Jewish but has played other Jewish characters like Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls — feels fortunate to work with each night for the past year of the tour’s run.
He’s also particularly looking forward to returning to Philadelphia, where he performed in shows with the now-defunct Philadelphia Drama Guild at the Annenberg Center, including a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
For him, Shakespeare’s legacy has to do with his interpretation of the world around him and how it translated to his works — and they were his works. “I believe that the man from Stratford wrote Shakespeare, and I think if you think he couldn’t have, then you’re an elitist,” he said with a laugh.
“What it is about Shakespeare, in my sense of it, is that he had a breadth and depth of vision for the time he lived in,” he added. “If you study it very closely, he started in the early plays with a certain narrow breadth of knowledge and then it expanded as he got older and grew.”
Rotten also gives a younger generation a chance to enjoy all the trappings of a fun musical with Shakespeare references they might have not have paid attention to in English class.
There are lines from Shakespeare plays laced throughout the musical, as well as other characters who share names with those from his works. Of course, as the musical within a musical is sort of based on Hamlet, there are many references to the classic tragedy.
During the run in Washington, D.C., the cast exchanged tickets with the cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Hamlet.
“I was joking with the actors in Hamlet that they use a lot of the lines we use in our show and don’t credit us,” Brooks chuckled.
His ultimate goal for the audience, in addition to maybe finding a new appreciation for Shakespeare, is to laugh.
“I don’t want to be too political,” he said, “but I like to say we’re trying to make America laugh again. We’re living in a time when a show like this really kind of fills a need for people to just laugh and let things go.”