Just in time for Passover, the Jewish Music Group (a division of Shout Factory) has released "Exodus: An Oratorio in Three Parts," performed by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. It is conducted by David Itkin, who created and composed the Oratorio, sung by baritone Paul Rowe and includes dramatic readings from the Bible and from the haggadah, spoken by none other than Shatner.
"It's perfect seder entertainment," Shatner said recently, but more than that, "it speaks to people of all religions. It's something that should be in repertory."
"Exodus: An Oratorio" is divided into three parts: "Moses and Pharaoh," "The Ten Plagues" and "Redemption." The music mixes symphonic and sacred, modulating strings, choral voices and baritone solos to provide both uplift and ballast to the biblical material -- as well as gentle musical transitions between some of Shatner's narrative performances. While Shatner has been parodied for his ability to bring a level of bombast to almost any material, here he gives a varied and nuanced performance -- his voice varies from sounding like a pulpit rabbi to the muted and conversational tones of a line reading. And then there are the special effects that are his signature -- when he makes his words pop with emphasis: (i.e., I.....AM.....THE.....LORD!)
"Exodus" was recorded live on April 9 and 10, 2005, at the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Ark., where the Arkansas Symphony was joined by a choir of 350.
Click here for a short excerpt of Shatner's performance. MP3. 700K.
"It was quite a happening," Shatner recalled in a recent telephone interview.
The work is just one of a number of new projects for the actor, who turned 76 on March 22. In the next few weeks, his autobiography, "Up Till Now," will be released, as well as a DVD of "William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet," which is a feature-length documentary about a ballet based on Shatner songs from his Ben Folds-produced album "Has Been." And, on April 26, he will host his annual event, Hollywood Charity Horse Show to raise money for a therapeutic equestrian program for handicapped kids.
To listen to Shatner tell the story of Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, to hear him read of the ten plagues and the story of the parting of the Red Sea, mixed in with choral and solo performances in English and Hebrew, is to realize how much of an icon he has become and what an amazingly diverse career he has had.
Shatner was born in Montreal, Canada, to Jewish parents and grew up in a kosher home. As a teenager, he was a counselor at a B'nai Brith camp in the Laurentian mountains in southern Quebec, according to various Web sites. He attended McGill University, earning a bachelor's in commerce. However, by the time he was 20 he had already landed a small role in a Canadian TV series. Over the next decade, Shatner would perform Shakespeare and appear on the Broadway stage in Christopher Marlowe's "Tamburlaine The Great," as well as the Richard Mason play "The World of Suzie Wong," and the Harold Clurman-directed "A Shot in the Dark," alongside Julie Harris and Walter Matthau.
During the 1950s, Shatner appeared in several of the "golden age of television" dramas, such as "Omnibus, ""Studio One" and "The Kraft Television Hour," including "A Town Has Turned to Dust" directed by John Frankenheimer and written by Rod Sterling. Shatner also had roles in such now-classic films as "The Brothers Karamazov" (with Yul Brynner and Claire Bloom) and "Judgment at Nuremberg."
A list of Shatner's credits from the early '60s includes almost every famous series, including "The Twilight Zone," "77 Sunset Strip," "Route 66," "The Outer Limits," "The Defenders," "Dr. Kildare," and "Gunsmoke."
In 1966, he assumed command of the Starship Enterprise, as Captain James T. Kirk. Although only 79 original episodes ran between 1966 and 1969, the "Star Trek" series cemented Shatner in the popular consciousness.
Nonetheless, after the series was cancelled, and following a divorce, Shatner was forced to live out of his truck, performing summer stock. During this period, concerned that he had been typecast as Kirk, Shatner wandered in the wilderness, taking whatever roles he could.
He returned to the helm of the Enterprise for the six Star Trek movies (directing the fifth). And he also returned to TV as the star of the police drama "T.J. Hooker," and then to host the reality series "Rescue 911."
At the same time, Shatner began to display a sense of humor about his long tenure as Captain Kirk, and the legions of obsessed Trekkie fans, in such films as "Airplane II" and "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon" and in skits on "Saturday Night Live." He gained further notoriety as a pitchman for Priceline.com.
More recently, Shatner hit gold again, portraying attorney Denny Crane on "Boston Legal," a role he originated on the series "The Practice." He is one of the few actors to receive consecutive Emmy awards for playing the same character on two different series.
Shatner's life has also had its share of tragedy: his third wife, Nerine, drowned after mixing valium and alcohol. Shatner recently told Details magazine that he didn't "understand closure ... we grieve forever."
As for his recording career, it began with his much-derided 1968 album, "Transformed Man" and with his over-the-top spoken word interpretations of songs such as Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." In 2004, Ben Folds produced "Has Been," a collection of songs, many of which he co-wrote with Shatner, including featured guest performances by Joe Jackson and Aimee Mann. It was well received and became a commercial success.
Which brings us back to "Exodus" and its composer David Itkin.
Itkin grew up in a conservative Jewish home, began writing music at 14 and conducting at 16. A graduate of the University of The Pacific Conservatory, he has been music director of the Arkansas Symphony since 1993, while also conducting and serving as music director for the Abilene Philharmonic Orchestra. It has just been announced that he will leave The Arkansas Symphony after the 2008-2009 season to become director of orchestral studies at the University of North Texas at Denton.At a seder in 2003, Itkin said he was stuck by the dramatic possibilities of the Passover story. He developed the composition while on sabbatical in Florence, Italy, the following summer and fall.
When Itkin secured a 2005 date for the "Exodus Oratorio" he still needed a narrator. "We kicked around lots of names," he said, and always considered but was not wedded to using famous Jewish actors. "We kept winnowing and winnowing the list" he said, "and Shatner's name kept coming up. And it wouldn't go away."
Itkin contacted Shatner, and it turned out that not only was he interested, he was available on the needed dates.
"It was intriguing," Shatner recalled.
So with little preparation, other than years of reading the haggadah at seders, Shatner arrived in Little Rock the night before the first performance.
"He was great fun to be around," Itkin recalled.
There were two rehearsals and two performances -- one on Friday and one on Saturday night. Itkin was impressed by how Shatner was able to deliver his narrative within the very proscribed places and vary each character, much like different "takes," affording choices for editing the eventual produced work.
"On Saturday," Shatner said, "everything fell into place." He reveled in the experience of being on stage with 350 choral members and a 72-piece orchestra, he said.
"There's no magic like a live audience," Shatner says in the recording's liner notes. "The performer sends out the words, the music, the love, and he gets back the energy of the audience in waves."
In the final section, "Redemption," he intones the words of the priestly blessing: "May the Lord Bless you and keep you; may he be gracious to you; may the Lord make the light of his countenance to shine upon you; and may he grant you peace."
"The words were like a benediction over the whole audience." Shatner recalled.
At the seders I attend, I am not above some moments of audio-visual enhancement. I recall one spectacular seder where, at the strategic moment, the late Charlton Heston burst onto a screen to part the Red Sea. In recent years, the immediate post-seder entertainment has been funny Passovers songs (like "There's No Seder Like Our Seder" to tune of "There's No Business Like Show Business"). This year may well find our seder going forth with Shatner and the "Exodus Oratorio."
And let us all together say: Amen.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
Audio courtesy JTA