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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One of New York's most cherished cultural institutions is celebrating an anniversary. The Delacorte Theater, home of Free Shakespeare in the Park, turns 50 this year. To mark the occasion, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, this week, led an all-star cast in a staged reading of "Romeo and Juliet."

Reporter Jeff Lunden spoke with them, and others, about this summer tradition.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When Kevin Kline was still a student at Juilliard, he made his professional debut at the Delacorte Theater.

KEVIN KLINE: My first job was carrying a spear in "Richard III."

LUNDEN: And since then, Kline has spent many summers, playing Shakespeare and Chekhov and Brecht, and Gilbert and Sullivan at the Delacorte.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIRATE KING")

KLINE: (Singing) I am the Pirate King...

We keep returning, because it is a special, magical experience. When the weather is right, when the production is right, when things are going well, they go better outdoors in the middle of Central Park in the Delacorte. And it's a testament to Joe Papp's vision; the fact that it's free.

LUNDEN: The late producer Joseph Papp, who grew up in Brooklyn, never forgot seeing free band concerts in the park as a child. As a young man, he decided he wanted to bring free Shakespeare to New Yorkers, says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, which presents plays in the Delacorte.

OSKAR EUSTIS: It was the idea that culture in a democracy should be the property of all the people, regardless of their educational attainment, regardless of their financial status or class status; that everybody had the right to own the best that our culture had to offer. And it's a beautiful vision that still lives.

LUNDEN: Papp started by having a multicultural troupe of actors perform in a band shell by the East River in 1956. Then the company expanded by presenting Shakespeare on a truck that toured the city. One of the stops was in Central Park, on a spot by a small lake with a little castle above it. Papp wanted to build a permanent theater there but ran into some trouble, says Oskar Eustis.

EUSTIS: In 1959, Robert Moses, the all-powerful commissioner of parks in New York City, decided that if we wanted to do Shakespeare in the Park, we had to charge money for it and split it with the Parks Department so that they could reseed the grass. Joe Papp said no.

LUNDEN: He took Moses to court and not only did he win, Papp got the city to build an 1800-seat amphitheater on the site. And on June 18, 1962, the Delacorte opened with The Merchant of Venice," starring George C. Scott and a very young James Earl Jones. Since then, over five million tickets have been handed out for more than 150 productions at the theater.

Eustis says one of the beauties of free Shakespeare in the Park is it's in the center of Manhattan.

EUSTIS: You're in this beautiful park, but you can also see the skyline of downtown and midtown below you, you can see the apartments on the East Side and the West Side of the park. You see the planes and helicopters going overhead, sometimes to our distress. You're not excluded from the life of the city; you're at the heart of the life of the city, seeing great art.

LUNDEN: And great actors performing it, says Jesse L. Martin, best known for his nine seasons on "Law and Order," and who appeared in "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Winter's Tale" two summers ago.

JESSE L. MARTIN: They get the best actors in the world to come and do these plays - for almost no money. People like Morgan Freeman or Kevin Kline, Tracy Ullman, John Lithgow, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "TAMING OF THE SHREW")

KLINE: (as Petruchio) ...too angry.

MERYL STREEP: (as Katherine) If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

LUNDEN: Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep as Katherine in "The Taming of the Shrew." Streep spent four summers at the Delacorte.

STREEP: People in the park, in the audience, feel they are in the play. They're in it with you, you're sharing this experience.

LUNDEN: That's because in the open air theater, anything can happen. Six years ago, Streep and Kevin Kline performed in Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children," a play set during the Thirty Years War.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER COURAGE")

MERYL STREEP AND KEVIN KLINE: (Singing) Let Christian souls crawl out of their beds. Pull on their socks.

STREEP: (Singing) And conquer death.

LUNDEN: The two say they were constantly at war with the weather.

STREEP: It was the rainiest summer New York had ever seen. And it never rained on the day off, which was very nice, but...

(LAUGHTER)

STREEP: ...every time, we came to the theater, they'd say, OK, 50/50 we're going on - we're not sure. And we just decided to go on because it's war and we all look like hell, anyway. It wasn't like we were trying to preserve glamour.

KLINE: Usually, the production stage manager would say we have - you can't go out there...

STREEP: We have to call off the show, right.

KLINE: ...in these beautiful frilly costumes. But these were rags we were wearing. And we thought that we could wear...

STREEP: And we wanted to give it so badly.

KLINE: Yeah. We didn't want to stop...

STREEP: We wanted to give it.

KLINE: ...and the audience didn't want us to stop. So, we played in the rain a few nights and it was magical.

STREEP: Mm-hmm, right through. Right through downpours and people didn't leave. They didn't leave.

LUNDEN: Lily Rabe, who's currently playing Rosalind in "As You Like It," says, in addition to dealing with the weather, she's waited in the wings with a raccoon that wandered in from the park. Rabe says nature and Shakespeare are a perfect fit.

LILY RABE: Shakespeare writes so much about things like the sky and you get to just look up and it's right there for you. And it's pretty miraculous.

LUNDEN: The 50th season of Free Shakespeare in the Park officially opens tonight with "As You Like It," which features bluegrass music by Steve Martin. Later this summer, Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" will be presented at the Delacorte.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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