NPR from Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Music Man Adds To Story At Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Ryan Denham
Tony Reimer is the sound designer and composer for the 2018 Illinois Shakespeare Festival, which opens this week.

There will be an excess of talent on stage at this summer’s Illinois Shakespeare Festival. World-class actors performing some of the most eloquent language ever put to paper, supported by a talented army of set, costume, and lighting designers.

Yet there are still things—emotions, moments, feelings—that even they can’t do on their own. And that’s where Tony Reimer comes in.

GLT's full interview with Tony Reimer.

Reimer is the festival’s sound designer. And this summer he’s pulling double duty, also composing original music for all three shows: “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Henry V” and “Shakespeare in Love.” He’s written about an hour of original music—and that’s a lot for live theater, where musical interludes are typically just 15 to 20 seconds.

“It’s a very different kind of composition than you’d find in a concert hall,” Reimer said.

Reimer sees his job as part of the storytelling process.

“Henry V” is a play about power, war, and the people it affects. And it’s not being done “in period,” meaning the world they’re creating is brand new, not the 15th century, Reimer said. He used a lot of distortion in his musical creations for “Henry V.” 

“That distortion falls in line with the overall vision for the show,” Reimer said. “Things are recognizable but they’re somehow not quite right.”

An excerpt from Reimer's score for "Henry V."

Reimer said he devours other media, finding inspiration everywhere. For “Henry V,” he drew on Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score for “Blade Runner: 2049” and composer Ben Frost’s work on the TV show “Fortitude,” about a mysterious small town in the Arctic. 

And as sound designer, Reimer must do what the show’s budget cannot—put the actors in the middle of a war.

“What I can add as a sound designer is a sense of battle, whether that’s the sound of artillery or the sound of people marching, just to expand the space of the theater to encompass elements of battle,” Reimer said. 

Not everything is so gloomy. “Merry Wives of Windsor” is set in the 1970s, leading Reimer to some playful compositions that evoke pop, funk, and disco.

An excerpt from Reimer's score for "Merry Wives of Windsor."

Reimer had big shoes to fill for “Shakespeare In Love,” which will be staged inside all summer (air conditioned and weather agnostic) at Illinois State University’s Center for the Performing Arts. The 1999 film on which the show is based won an Oscar for best score.

“All input is good input. In our case, because we are on stage, we don’t have smash cuts and stuff like that. It necessarily needs to be a little bit different. In terms of texture and orchestration and feel, I do honor or give a nod to that film score. But thematically, I just kind of blew all that up,” Reimer said.

An excerpt from Reimer's score for "Shakespeare In Love."

Another challenge: “Shakespeare In Love” is being done in period unlike the other two, so it’s set in the Bard’s era (16th and 17th centuries).

“Technology wasn’t very far along in Shakespeare’s days, so the musical instruments were not nearly as advanced as what we have now. That presents a lot of challenges from a compositional standpoint. But it is an adaptation of a movie, so we get to cheat a little bit,” Reimer said. "We used a lot of really lush orchestrations, from a much bigger orchestra that would’ve existed in the period." 

Reimer has been composing music for around 30 years, catching the bug in college when he first wrote original work for an adaptation of “Jane Eyre.”

Illinois Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director John Stark said Reimer’s dual roles—sound designer and composer—bring something special to the 2018 season.

“Anybody that watches anything—television, film, etc.—will appreciate musical lead-ins to stories and bits that bridge from one moment to another,” Stark said. “We’re expecting those transitions. They help set the tone for the next thing you’re going to see, or that music will comment on what you just saw.” 

“The music is such an important element to set the tone for any theatrical production.” 

The first show, “Merry Wives,” opens Thursday at the Ewing Theatre. Get tickets and more at

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.