One morning Colin Thurmond had a revelation. It included Joey Fatone as a spectral Duke Orsino, Jordan Knight doing the New Kids dance in an ancient region of the western Balkans after a shipwreck, and Justin Timberlake in yellow stockings. Thurmond, who is working on his doctorate in classical guitar at the New England Conservatory, was so passionate about marrying 1990s boy band music with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that he sat at his computer first thing that morning and didn’t stop writing until 11 that night. He was so entranced by the project he didn’t change out of his pajamas.
“The story really wrote itself,” he said of “Sexyback: or what you will.”
This not-exactly-classic alliance between the music of ’N Sync, New Kids on the Block, and the story of “Twelfth Night” makes its premiere Monday night with a staged reading at Oberon in Cambridge. It’s the kind of show where the audience is encouraged to sip hooch, get social with each other, and sing along with familiar songs. It also helps the audience understand the high jinks of the gender-bending play.
Thurmond and his performance troupe, Touch Performance Art, will perform the show again in July, and then begin a regular run in September. Monday is an opportunity to see the show in its infancy, for free.
We asked Thurmond to explain his vision of combining modern pop and classical prose.
‘It’s the music that’s driving the story. The text and the dialogue is found in the interlude moments.’
Q. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time connecting Justin Timberlake and Shakespeare.
A. I had a moment when those things just really clicked because I was thinking a lot about my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I was batting around this idea of how to tell a really complex narrative story through song. I was the music director for the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company this past summer on their “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” production. [CSC artistic director] Steve Maler said he really wanted to be able to turn the show into a Rat Pack, Vegas thing that could also propel the narrative forward. He wanted the music to add an emotional depth to the characters and make it feel really contemporary and fun.
Q. And in this case, how did you make the jump to 1990s boy band music?
A. I was watching “The Donkey Show” and seeing how they tell the story through disco music. I thought, What is that really guilty pleasure for young audiences now? I’m 29 and realized that what’s on par with the disco hits of the 1970s for my generation are those boy band songs. I went back and started reading the script of “Twelfth Night.” It’s always jumped off the page for me. It’s always just felt so funny and sharp and alive. I think these songs can also feel that way.
Q. How much of the show is actual dialogue?
A. It’s the music that’s driving the story. The text and the dialogue is found in the interlude moments. We try to sing the songs as faithfully as we can to the original. Sometimes you can tell the story of “Twelfth Night” without changing the lyrics, but in some cases we needed to.
Q. The skeptic in me would ask: Haven’t we already seen the Shakespeare-goes-pop routine with “The Donkey Show?”
A. Yes, absolutely. I think that’s something that I’m very conscious of. I know “The Donkey Show” extremely well. I really make conscious choices about how we can do this in different ways. I’m not interested in replicating it but really creating a piece that stands on its own. I think it’s a little bit closer and a little bit truer to Shakespeare than “The Donkey Show.” We pull segments of dialogue that you hear directly. You get every plot point along the way, even though it zips by at blazing speed. I think it all comes together to be its own thing. I think when people see it, they’ll realize that.
Q. This seems a bit out of your realm. I thought you were a classical music kind of guy?
A. I took a year off after getting my master’s degree to live in London. I was able to go to the Globe Theatre all the time. I remember having some of the most amazing times at the Globe. It was a very communal experience that I really enjoyed. So I started writing some side projects. It’s been an amazing outlet for me outside of classical music to use my interest in pop music and theater. I started showing my work to people, and it picked up steam. I didn’t really expect it to. It’s like throwing wet paper towels at the wall and seeing if they’d stick. And they just kind of stuck.
Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.