By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Myths and Hymns is practically begging to be interpreted and reinterpreted on stage.
Written by composer-lyricist Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins), it's a song cycle that uses mythology, religious allusions, and the lyrics to classic hymns to explore massive themes like ambition, love, and death. Yet for all their all grandeur, the songs are easily accessible, influenced not only by European art songs and show tunes, but also by gospel, R&B, and Latin music.
As of today, however, there have only been sixteen official performances of Myths and Hymns in New York City, and those were in 1998, when the show was called Saturn Returns and got a brief concert staging at the Public Theater. Since then, a celebrated recording featuring Kristen Chenoweth, Audra McDonald, and Billy Porter has carried on the music's legacy, but that's just not the same as a living, breathing production.
That's why the Prospect Theater Company's revival, which begins previews tomorrow night, is something of an event.
But audiences shouldn't expect a simple recreation of the cast recording. With Guettel's blessing and input, director Elizabeth Lucas is placing the songs in an entirely new context.
Lucas' interpretation tells the story of an elderly woman who has had a stroke and is about to be moved to a retirement home. As she sorts through boxes in her attic, she finds herself confronted by painful memories of how her family fell apart. Each song pulls her into another part of her past.
Lucas developed this story after having dinner with Guettel. "One of the things he said was that productions have tried to make a central character who's like him, singing a lot of it and with the show revolving around him," she recalls. "And he said, 'Look, a central character who sings everything doesn't necessarily work.' I started percolating on that, and two days later, I basically wrote the whole thing."
She continues, "What he said sparked the thought of the central character being someone who couldn't speak. You've got a central character who can't or chooses not to remember and can't speak for herself."
Instead, the woman mostly watches. During the song "Saturn Returns," for instance, her son and his friend realize they have feelings for each other, and she stumbles upon their blooming romance.
Lucas does not add dialogue to this scene. Instead, she blends her staging with Guettel's lyrics and Wendy Seyb's choreography to clarify how the characters feel. In one moment, the two men sing in harmony as one lifts the other off the ground. One is flying, his arms outstretched, while the other's face is practically buried in his partner's chest. It's a startling, intimate image that suits the soaring music.
"When you look at these songs, which are heightened, naturally stylized, if you try to connect them together with dialogue, it just doesn't work," Lucas says. "It feels false."
Besides, she feels Guettel's lyrics suit her story. "There's a line in [the song] 'Awaiting You' where [the character] says, 'What about the child who cannot breathe? The gentle sage who won't reach the age of 32?'" she explains. "Well, I don't know what Adam meant when he wrote that, but in my context, it's very clearly talking about the daughter and the son."
If there's anyone who can appreciate distinctions between earlier versions of the show and the current one, it's Bob Stillman. He's the only actor to be part of both casts and the recording. At first, he was hesitant to return: "It was such a great experience, and what if it doesn't work?" he explains.
But while it's too soon to know what audiences will think of the reinvented show, Stillman's fears have subsided. "It's really been as much of a joy to revisit it as it was to do it the first time," he says. "The material is just exquisite."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor