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20 questions.

You aren't new to Sophocles adaptations ....

I started doing The Gospel at Colonus in 1982, and I've performed it 1,276 times around the world.

Not that anyone' keeping count.

(Laughs) I started keeping count when we did our 1,000[th] show at Carnegie Hall. Director Lee Breuer got me involved. Helping to arrange Bob Telson's music and conducting the choir, I learned a lot about Greek theatre. Our director for Burial at Thebes, Marcela Lorca, asked me to write music for a BFA project at the University of Minnesota called Iphigenia at Aulis and out of that grew our collaboration for Burial at Thebes. I created the music right there in rehearsal while Marcela put the show on its feet. Her vision, and the phenomenal cast, inspired me to create song after song.

What is it about your musical sensibility and Greek theatre that's such a good fit?

The text, and particularly Seamus Heaney's version of the text, is easy to put to music because it just falls off the lips.

Is there a line from Thebes that you particularly love?

The passage that begins, "Among the many wonders of the world / Where is the equal of this creature, man?" is unbelievably beautiful. It speaks about how man has mastered the seas, the skies--but the one thing he cannot defeat is death.

What's different for you about composing music for theatre rather than for your family group the Steeles?

The difference is in the genres. For the Steeles, I've written a lot of R&B and gospel and jazz. I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised by Thebes, because they're thinking it will be gospel-oriented, but for this show IVe created a Mid-Eastern style of music that I became familiar with about 20 years ago through a friend of mine from Pakistan.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Can you tell me about the work you do with kids?

I'm on the faculty at the MacPhail Center for Music, a wonderful institution here in the Twin Cities that has been around 100 years. And I've been doing a project in Kenya for seven years, with 230 kids in a slum called Kangemi, just outside Nairobi. We're breaking ground on a school next year, and the kids have been touring around the world with me. The ambition is to get them to become self-sufficient, so they're making money and don't have to depend on handouts. Basically, I take my Western, soulful style of music and combine it with their East African rhythms to create songs they get excited about. They also get excited about teaching me Swahili.

What's your favorite Swahili phrase?

Karibu nzuri sana. It means: "Welcome, good to have you here." It sounds so pretty. It's like how I feel about the sound of French. Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world.

If you could write a song for any singer, who would it be?

George Duke, or Donny Hathaway. Or Maurice White from Earth, Wind, and Fire--when I met him, I gushed all over him. There are also a lot of female singers I adore, including some of the new up-and-coming singers, like Adele.

Who would you pick to write a musical about the Steeles?

Probably the most versatile musician I know is Prince. Especially because he knows us so well, I think he could pull that off. I first met him in 1977, when I had just moved to the Twin Cities from Gary, Ind., and he was rehearsing in his stepmother's basement.

What instrument do you wish you could instantly learn?

Piano. I don't play any instruments. When I write for orchestras, I sing the violin parts, the cello parts, and have someone sitting there taking notes. When I work with a band I sing the bass lines, I sing the drum lines, I sing the piano chords ....

So you're like a one-man a cappella group.

(Laughs.) Kinda. I think of all the arrangements in my head. Sometimes it's like a radio in my head that 1 can't turn off.

If you weren't a musician, what would you have done?

Marketing and sales, which is what I did after college. My claim to fame was marketing Post-it Notes, which I thought was the stupidest product I'd ever heard of in my life. I was obviously wrong! (Laughs.) I happened to meet a couple of producers who asked me to sing in commercials--I did that Dairy Queen commercial: "We treat you right!" Then I started writing and producing jingles. I use those same marketing techniques in my music career, to do what I can to make things happen. I tell younger people I work with that it's important to do this and that, as opposed to this or that.

Among busy musician J.D. Steele's many projects is his new original music for The Burial at Thebes, Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone. It runs at the Guthrie Theater, in Steele's home base of Minneapolis, through Nov. 6.
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Title Annotation:J.D. Steele's interview
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:835
Previous Article:Onstage November 11.
Next Article:Avid Barbour, the author of this issue's feature.
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