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Howard Sherman: An exciting new score can help the medicine of Greek tragedy go down

Theater of War’s Antigone in Ferguson at Harlem Stage. Photo credit: Gregg Richards
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You’re welcome to claim it as a failing of the American educational system, but I made it through university without ever being required to read any of the classic Greek dramas. Over the years, I’ve happened to see a handful of these seminal works, most recently Robert Icke’s version of The Oresteia, but I confess to being largely ignorant of this literature. I do not say this with any pride, but rather state it as a fact.

Consequently, it came as a surprise that on the first two Thursdays of this month, I found myself seeing Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. More accurately, I saw The Gospel at Colonus – a 1983 musical version of Sophocles’ second Theban play – followed by Antigone in Ferguson, a concert reading of the trilogy’s third play with an extensive new gospel music score. Colonus was produced by the Public Theater at its outdoor venue in Central Park, while Antigone was a joint production of Theater of War and Harlem Stage, mounted at the latter’s home.

That this was a crash course of Sophoclean drama goes without saying, but what struck me most about these two productions was the deployment of gospel musical to enliven and underscore the ancient dramas. When one thinks of a Greek chorus, a vision of performers reciting in unison may come to mind, but vocal riffs and hand-clapping are probably less prevalent. Yet in each case, this distinctively American musical style, born of spirituals and church tradition, blended seamlessly with tragedy from thousands of years ago to deliver the plays’ moral lessons once again.

At a time when audiences in the US and UK are competing to acquire tickets to a rap, hip-hop and R’n’B retelling of the story of the father of the US monetary system, it should come as no surprise that music can help to illuminate historical stories, whether 200 or 2,000 years old. Purists may argue that these more contemporary musical styles serve to displace the details of text or incident, but for the uninitiated such as myself, they bring the story to life in a new way.

Do I believe that it is essential for classic works to be musicalised, or imagine Broadway filled with stories from American history texts? Of course not. But I am reminded of Mary Poppins’ dictum that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And for many, Greek drama may indeed be medicinal – good for us to know, but not always easy to grapple with (though Icke’s Oresteia certainly needed no singing to hold me rapt for four hours).

Oresteia

The Gospel at Colonus and Antigone in Ferguson – along with Hamilton – are also reminders that, when re-conceiving texts with musical elements, or as full on musical theatre, there is no right or wrong. Any story can be merged with music and even seemingly dissonant material, by which I refer to text and musical idiom, when adapted with care, detail and fully considered style, illuminates and elevates the story in new and surprising ways.

But I must admit that, drawing on my own spotty cultural education, I did have a tune running through my head before The Gospel at Colonus began. Its jazzy riffs came not from world drama or a gospel songbook, but rather from the pen and piano of the master satirist Tom Lehrer, whose repertoire is deeply embedded in the part of my brain that stores lyrics and melodies dating back decades. Awaiting the show in Central Park, I might have been bobbing my head along to Lehrer’s own Oedipus Rex, a jazzy tune that includes the lyrics: “Yes, he loved his mother like no other/His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother/One thing on which you can depend is/He sure knew who a boy’s best friend is.”

Lehrer’s song was meant to ridicule what he saw as a trend in movies requiring potentially popular theme songs for marketing purposes, but 50 years on, his parody has proven prescient. Rather than ridiculing the merger of music and melody, Lehrer was providing a recipe, following in the tradition of such works as Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s The Golden Apple, an American re-imagining of The Odyssey. Indeed, what’s old is new again – and what’s wrong with it if, to repurpose Lehrer’s condescension, it has a tune that the people can hum?

 

This week in US theatre

Craig Lucas’ I Was Most Alive With You, first seen at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, reaches New York’s Playwrights Horizons this week, opening on Monday evening. The play features a unique staging concept, with one cast – which includes the remarkable Lois Smith – performing in English, shadowed by a cast performing simultaneously in American Sign Language. Tyne Rafaeli directs, with Sabrina Dennison serving as director of artistic sign language.

Luton-born David Cale has been a fixture on US stages for more than 30 years, having honed his skills as playwright, monologist, and sometimes as singer and songwriter. His newest work, We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, is a one-man musical recounting the story of his youth, and a childhood tragedy. Written in collaboration with Matthew Dean Marsh, it is staged by Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, where the show opens on Monday.

Theresa Rebeck has brought Sarah Bernhardt back to the stage for the comedy Bernhardt/Hamlet, which opens Tuesday at Roundabout Theatre Company. Janet McTeer plays Bernhardt playing the melancholy Dane, under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s direction.

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