'Myths and Hymns,' a theater cult favorite, changes shape again
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'Myths and Hymns,' a theater cult favorite, changes shape again
Adam Guettel, left, and Ted Sperling in New York, May 23, 2021. A new virtual production of “Myths and Hymns” by MasterVoices reunites the work’s composer, Adam Guettel, with the music director of its debut, Ted Sperling, who now leads MasterVoices. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Listening to Adam Guettel’s song cycle “Myths and Hymns,” after a year of pandemic isolation and cautiously hoping for vaccinated freedom, you might feel a pang of recognition in the lyric “So get me up/ And get me out/ And let me never return,” swelling to “I’m out of here/ I am going there/ I am gone!”

A little timelessness is to be expected in Guettel’s songs, a genre-hopping clash of ancient Greek tales and hymnal texts that debuted in 1998 (with a brief run at the Public Theater in New York that has taken on a mythic status of its own) and has since inspired artists to take it up in a variety of forms as simple as a recital showpiece, and as elaborate as a book musical adaptation.

The latest iteration reunites Guettel with Ted Sperling — the music director of that original production at the Public, and now the artistic director of MasterVoices, which is presenting “Myths and Hymns” as an online miniseries whose four thematically organized episodes conclude Wednesday with the premiere of “Faith.” (The whole production will remain on YouTube through June.)

In a typical season, MasterVoices marshals luminaries of Broadway and opera for concerts and semi-staged performances of both classic gems and newer works. But no production has been as starry as this “Myths and Hymns,” whose nimble eclecticism opens it up to diverse casting. (Stephen Holden, reviewing the Public performances for The New York Times, wrote that Guettel had “created a kaleidoscopically heady musical-theater piece in which Gabriel Fauré meets Stevie Wonder, Caetano Veloso embraces Earth, Wind and Fire, and they all dance together around the tribal hearth.”)

Each of the piece’s 24 songs was treated as a discrete project — with its own cast and creative team — which made it easy for performers to contribute compared with, say, a weekslong timeline for something at Carnegie Hall. Sperling cast a wide net, not getting everyone on his wish list (like James Taylor) but gathering, among many others, Kelli O’Hara, Renée Fleming, Joshua Henry, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jennifer Holliday, John Lithgow and the group Take 6.

“It’s a pretty incredible roster,” Guettel said in a recent joint interview with Sperling. “It might be damn near impossible to get all these people together for one night onstage.”

It is unsurprising that so many singers were willing to join the production. Guettel’s music is not the material of Broadway blockbusters, but it is widely beloved for its originality, even for its difficulty, leaning toward the tradition of American art song — or even the high-level writing of golden age musical theater composers like his grandfather Richard Rodgers.

O’Hara, who starred in Guettel’s 2005 musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” as well as in workshops for his work in progress “Days of Wine and Roses,” said that the word that always comes to mind with his music is “satisfying.”

“It’s so rich, and there’s so much work to it, but it begs us to take in and understand it,” said O’Hara, whose appearances in the MasterVoices production include a luxuriously cast “Migratory V” adapted as a trio for her, Fleming and soprano Julia Bullock. “I don’t want to be spoon-fed easy melodies and things I can hum. I want ones that get inside and kill me, really. And that’s what ‘Myths and Hymns’ does for me.”

This “Myths and Hymns” is a rare opportunity to hear Guettel’s music, which has been absent on Broadway since the lushly sensuous score of “The Light in the Piazza” resounded from the pit of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Not that he has not been busy; in fact, he has written entire musicals.

“Two of them are finished, and they’re circling La Guardia,” Guettel said, “for understandable reasons, between the pandemic and some other complications that have come up, in terms of how and where the shows were meant to be produced.” (The embattled megaproducer Scott Rudin had been attached to “Days of Wine and Roses.”)

For now, though, Guettel has been able to revisit some of his earliest music, and in a new medium. Over lunch, he and Sperling talked more about the genesis of “Myths and Hymns,” then and now, and what may be in store for the piece’s future. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: Was this conceived as a virtual production from the start?

TED SPERLING: From the very beginning. My concept was that it should be kaleidoscopic. I wanted a lot of directors, a lot of input, a lot of difference. I didn’t even want the directors to know what they were doing.

Q: That reflects the music’s range. Adam, can you explain how “Myths and Hymns” took this form to begin with?

ADAM GUETTEL: I had been writing these myths just because I was just starting out as a writer, and you don’t know what to write. I did stuff that was tried and true. That was enough to keep me busy. Then I came across this book in an old antique shop, and it was a tiny book, the size of an iPhone. And it was just the words to a bunch of hymns. And for some reason out of this Upper West Side Jew comes all of this music to these hymn lyrics.

So there were these two stacks of things. And Tina Landau came over one day and said, “What are you working on?” and I said, “Well I’ve got these two stacks of things,” and she listened to a bunch of them and said, “Well, why wouldn’t they work together?” And we realized in some ways that the hymns are who we would have ourselves be, and the myths are basically who we are, and that they can kind of antiphonally talk to each other.

Q: What has it been like revisiting this music?

GUETTEL: I’ve gone to see a few productions, but I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. I might have had a small case of the usual “Oh my God, I did go on a bit”; “Jesus, that needs help”; “boy, those lyrics are over couplet-y.” There’s stuff that I was a little embarrassed by at first. But I let go of my vanity and let it be what it was. And there’s the honor of being a composer who wrote something 22 years ago that’s getting done again. That’s really what you write for, so that you leave something behind.

SPERLING: I imagine every writer feels with more experience that their craft grows. My impression is you have to acknowledge that you were a certain person of a certain age when you wrote a piece and you keep changing, but the piece is a record of who you were then. If you try to monkey with it too much from a later perspective you run the rusk of muddying the waters.

GUETTEL: You’re operating on a patient whose anatomy you’re not familiar with anymore.

Q: In this form, “Myths and Hymns” is probably reaching its largest audience yet.

SPERLING: We’re at over 50,000 now, which is way more than we would get in a season. We are planning to package it as a single work and reedit it, and it will be broadcast on PBS.

Q: And with such a starry cast, will there be an album, too?

GUETTEL: There are six songs that are not on the Nonesuch record [released in 1999] that no one’s ever heard, except the people who saw it at the Public.

SPERLING: And one of them not even that! One of my impulses to do this was that I wanted a more complete recording. People on YouTube have been asking, “Can we please have this as audio?” It would be lovely to have a little more time with it.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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