Less than a month after the death of Charlton Heston, another of Hollywood’s great over-actors is taking center stage in the retelling of the Passover story.
This week the Jewish Music Group is releasing “Exodus: An Oratorio in Three Parts,” a dramatic biblical reading by William Shatner accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
The album is taken from recordings of back-to-back evening performances in April 2005 at the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock.
In a recent interview, Shatner credited David Itkin, the orchestra’s conductor, with writing the music and bringing together passages from the Bible and the haggadah to produce the final text.
“It’s his creation,” Shatner said, adding that he thought so highly of the production that he made arrangements to have the two performances recorded.
“On the Saturday night that most of this record is taken from, my thrill was connecting with the audience the way we did,” the star of “Star Trek” and “Boston Legal” recalled.
“The actor, along with 350 voices in the choral group and 75 people in the orchestra, all combined to reach out to this audience of several thousand people. The magic of the CD is that you can hear the connection, especially at the end, between the audience and the actor.”
At first glance, the “Exodus” production sounds more like a project for Shatner’s best-known “Star Trek” co-star, Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy has long been known for mining his Jewish heritage, from basing Spock’s split-fingered Vulcan greeting on the ancient Israelite priestly blessing to drawing inspiration from Kabbalah for a book of semi-nude photographs.
But now, at the very end of the performance, it’s Shatner reciting the priestly blessing — to an enthusiastic ovation.
So does the “Exodus” reading, along with a film in the works titled “The Shiva Club,” point to some sort of later-in-life artistic engagement with his Jewish roots?
No, Shatner says, just a coincidence.
“My being Jewish does not inform the things I do, necessarily,” Shatner explained, speaking by phone during a lunch break from shooting an episode of “Boston Legal.”
“‘Exodus’ is a wonderful piece, no matter what religion you are. ‘The Shiva Club,’ which is a movie I am attempting to make sometime soon, is about crashing a shiva, if you will. A couple of comics crash a shiva. I could have, I suppose, made it an Irish wake, but the shiva I was more familiar with.”
Just as Shatner says his religious background does not inform his art, he also insists that his turn as the narrator of “Exodus” has not led to any sort of personal transformation or alter his connection to Passover.
“I come from a Conservative Jewish home in Canada, which is pretty much like an Orthodox home here in the States. And we celebrated Passover every year and held a long seder,” Shatner said, adding that he continues to mark the holiday.
“My daughter makes a seder, but it’s a little more modern” — plenty of English, he explained — “and a little less time than the old-fashioned ones.”