Ellington’s custom blues and jazz paint picture of 1930s in CTC’s ‘As You Like It’


Stephen Spencer (Charles/William) and Max Roll (Amiens) sing during a dress rehearsal for William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Jackson Gay, in Bratton Theater through Aug. 17. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

Emanating from the stage of Shakespeare’s classic As You Like It will be the melodies and tunes of 1930s blues and jazz.

Though the Bard himself wrote the lyrics to five of the six songs featured in Chautauqua Theater Company’s performance, sound designer and composer Justin Ellington custom-composed all the songs for this particular production, which the cast will perform live.

He also penned the lyrics to one of the songs written for the character Rosalind, played by operatically trained cast member Sepideh Moafi.

“The songs are definitely heightening the emotions (of the text) … and they offer some backstory or subtext,” Ellington said. “This production has the challenge of not only storytelling, but storytelling in the right musical vein or genre.”

The musical genre and setting of the entire play, chosen by guest director Jackson Gay, is the 1930s. As You Like It follows characters who lose their lives of comfort and discover themselves by becoming have-nots, which mimics the Depression era, Gay said.

As You Like It is CTC’s third and final full production of the summer. It opens at 6 p.m. Saturday in Bratton Theater and runs through Aug. 17. Besides two guest artist actors, the play features all 14 of the conservatory actors, who will be asked to act and sing for the play.

Though one song will be pre-recorded, because it is played through an on-stage radio, most songs will be accompanied by conservatory actor Stephen Spencer on guitar. Conservatory actor Max Roll leads many of the songs. Other members of the cast join in later to harmonize.

“The cast is hungry, and enthusiastic, and professional and uber-talented,” Ellington said. “And at the end of the day, that’s all I want.”

Ellington instructs the players and creates the music, including all the play’s sound effects and transition music. All his music must fit with the 1930s theme.

He began his process of composing by immersing himself in the time period, which features both Mississippi Delta and Harlem blues.

“Both had some sense of hope involved, so as dark and gloomy as the world may seem, there is this glimmer of hope,” Ellington said. “This play is definitely about hope for love. Everybody wants love.”

As an example of the blues, Ellington demonstrated at an early meet-and-greet for As You Like It how his left and right hands worked on the piano while playing.

His right hand played the happier melody — signifying what people are told life should be like — while the left hand played the sometimes melancholy, sometimes booming blues — signifying reality.

“You have really great moments where the right hand agrees with the left, but the fact of the matter is, in all of our lives, there are ups and downs, and we persevere,” Ellington said. “Blues is kind of like that: persevere.”

After having researched the music he will incorporate in the play, the most important thing he must do is let go of all that study. That way, his songs seem to come naturally from the music’s time, he said.

“For most productions set in (a time period), that is the world I am in from a few weeks before the rehearsal to opening night,” Ellington said. “So this is me, instead of me imitating whomever from that generation.”

And Ellington is no one’s imitator. Self-taught on piano, he received formal piano training later in life only so he could repeat what he had done and communicate it to others.

“I was actually a terrible piano student … when somebody was laying rules on me. Like if somebody was holding Picasso’s hand as he painted, we wouldn’t know Picasso,” Ellington said. “I am not against formal instruction at all, but … it works for me to come from the opposite way.”

Ellington’s musical path began when he went to a performing arts high school, but his formal education stopped there.

He began working immediately as musical director of the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, where he worked with Broadway stars such as Saycon Sengbloh and Sahr Ngaujah and actor Kenan Thompson.

From there, Ellington followed the music, and he is now a freelance composer, pianist and sound designer. He also works as a producer in the recording industry.

“It’s simple: I do music,” he said.

Gay invited Ellington to the Institution — his first time working on music at Chautauqua — to help on the project. The best aspects of his time at the Institution have been the talented, passionate actors and Chautauqua’s welcoming, neighborly community, he said.

“The Forest of Arden is very Chautauqua-like … you kind of left the city. In a way, you are humbling yourself,” Ellington said. “These are hinted at in the dialogue, but I think the songs really enforce that and really paint the picture of these now-foresters.”