Now almost one year into the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered most live performances worldwide, theatre fans have become more than acquainted with watching virtual performances by actors and singers in a grid of Zoom squares.
But Broadway My Fair Lady and King and I conductor-music director Ted Sperling, now at the helm of New York City community choir MasterVoices, is bursting outside of that box with a project that has mixed the world of choral performance, musical theatre, visual art, and filmmaking. The group is presenting Light in the Piazza-composer Adam Guettel's song cycle Myths and Hymns as a multi-episode series. The second episode, "Work," premieres on YouTube February 24 at 6:30 PM ET, with performances from Shoshana Bean, Michael McElroy, John Lithgow, Daniel Breaker, and more.
“It became clear pretty quickly last spring that we were not going to be able to perform anything live this season,” shares Sperling. “I immediately started to watch what people were doing, and predicting ahead I thought ‘This is fantastic what everybody is doing right now, but I bet six months or a year from now, people will have fatigue of watching people in a grid singing.”
Sperling and his ensemble turned lemons in lemonade, transforming the 1998 song cycle into a visual and performing arts project, featuring a mini film for each song with its own director and, frequently, original artwork and animation from visual artists. “Flight,” the project’s first half-hour episode, which debuted on YouTube last month, includes performances from Joshua Henry, Mykal Kilgore, Norm Lewis, Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, Julia Bullock, Jose Llana, Capathia Jenkins, and Elizabeth Stanley; direction by Sperling, Sammi Cannold, Lear Debessonet, and Khristian Dentley; and artwork from visual artists Yazmany Arboleda, Cloud Chatanda, and Stephen Kellogg.
The result is anything but a grid of people singing. The series’ first episode has chorus members dancing in their backyards, Kilgore with original animation swirling around his body, and even Guettel himself playing guitar, backed by elaborate illustrations telling the story of Pegasus and Bellerophon.
“Adam [Guettel] thinks of this piece as a tabula rasa for directors. It can be interpreted in so many ways because it doesn’t have a particular throughline.”
The selection of Myths and Hymns was a purposeful one. Inspired both by Greek mythology and the text of a 19th century Presbyterian hymnal, the seemingly disconnected songs center on people in moments of crisis, bookended with the concept of the Saturn Return. This astrological idea refers to the time it takes Saturn to return to same place in the sky that it was in when someone was born, a journey that takes roughly 27-30 years, and is thought to coincide with transformative moments of crisis—think quarter- and mid-life crises. With much of the world’s lives on hold in the face of COVID-19, this may be a familiar concept, regardless of Saturn’s current position.
“I always try to find pieces that speak to the issues that are troubling me or are occupying a lot of brain space. Myths and Hymns is not as obviously about current events, but it has a quality of longing for something that has been lost, and it certainly examines personal crisis.”
The connection to the current moment becomes more direct in Joshua Henry’s take on “Saturn Returns,” which he and Sperling have re-imagined as from the perspective of a person feeling trapped indoors who wants to get back to being creative, singing “Long ago, I tasted something sweet. It’s an echo, it’s a memory in retreat.”
Sperling, who helped develop the piece for both its 1998 Off-Broadway premiere at The Public Theater and its 1999 album from Nonesuch Records, says fans of the work will find lots of new material in MasterVoice’s version of it.
“When we made the album in the late ‘90s, you were limited to what could fit on a CD, so there were songs that just didn’t make it. I don’t want to give it away, but there’s one in the second episode that has never been recorded at all that’s really wild. You’ll hear two beautiful ballads [in the second episode] that you may have never heard before and one jazzy piece that will surprise you.”
Sperling also hopes that this project, and ones like it, will continue past the current moment.
“When you put as much energy as we do into a one-night event, it’s thrilling, but there’s this feeling of ‘I can’t believe I put so much energy into this and it’s over and no one will ever see it again.’ That’s part of the magic of live theatre and live concert-going, but there’s also something wonderful to be able to revisit something, especially work as complex as Adam’s—It reveals itself more on repeat viewings. I hope that we’ll find a way to combine live performances and recorded performances.”
As for Myths and Hymns specifically, the project is scheduled to remain on YouTube through June 30, though there are plans for a life beyond streaming.
“The current plan is once it’s complete and has finished its run on YouTube, it will be aired on PBS as a complete piece. There have also been a lot of people asking would we make our own cast album of this, and that’s an open question and we’re definitely exploring that.”
Myths and Hymns Chapter 2: Work premieres on MasterVoices’ YouTube channel February 24 at 6:30 PM ET.