Musical version of ‘Moby-Dick,’ production of ‘1776’ slated for American Repertory Theater
Gloria Steinem, the Founding Fathers, Captain Ahab, the six wives of Henry VIII, and a climate-change-denying senator named Mr. Majority: They’re a pretty eclectic bunch as dramatis personae go, and all of them are destined to take their turn in the spotlight next season at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater.
At least two of the productions announced Wednesday for the ART’s 2019-2020 season seem likely prospects to join the lengthy list of ART shows that have transferred to Broadway in the decade since Diane Paulus became artistic director: a world-premiere musical adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” created by the team behind “Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812,’’ and a Paulus-directed production of “1776’’ that will focus on the race-driven contradictions underpinning the Declaration of Independence.
Slated for Dec. 3-Jan. 12 at the Loeb Drama Center, “Moby-Dick’’ will be directed by Rachel Chavkin and will feature music, lyrics, and book by Dave Malloy. Their production of “Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812,’’ which was adapted from a section of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,’’ was presented by the ART four years ago. “Not unlike ‘Natasha, Pierre,’ Dave has taken on a massive novel that he’s found a way into through his unique musical brain,’’ Paulus said in a telephone interview with the Globe. “The issue with ‘Moby-Dick’ is that it’s about the hunt, the tyranny of Ahab, and how far you’ll go in pursuit of your goal.’’
That word “tyranny’’ has been much on the mind of theater artists in the last couple of years, as numerous companies have responded to the Trump presidency by staging anti-authoritarian plays or musicals. Speaking of the ART season, Paulus said: “If you look at the range of work, they’re all stories that deal with either figures from history or literature, stories about the turning points of tyranny and liberation that actually have contemporary resonance.’’
Paulus will direct two such productions in Cambridge next season: “Gloria: A Life,’’ a play by Emily Mann about Steinem, who has long been among the most influential leaders in the fight for women’s rights, and “1776,’’ the 1969 musical by Peter Stone (book) and Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) about the contentious circumstances surrounding the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
What intrigues Paulus about “1776,’’ which will be at the Loeb May 22-June 28, 2020, is the spotlight it turns on the fact that the nation’s founding document, while proclaiming independence, did not address the issue of slavery, a step taken to garner majority support among the signers. “The Declaration was the moment for the country to make a founding statement; that’s what John Adams said,’’ said Paulus. But, she added, “We made a major compromise in the founding of the country.’’
“Gloria,’’ which will be at the Loeb Jan. 24-Feb. 22, focuses not just on the feminist icon of the title but on “the community of women around her who were part of the fight for equality,’’ Paulus said, adding that Act 2 will consist of a “talking circle’’ in which audience members give their responses to what they have just seen and “speak to their own experience and their stories.’’ Paulus said the talking circle was one of the most powerful aspects of the off-Broadway production of “Gloria’’ she directed last year, starring Christine Lahti as Steinem.
(Disclosure: Paulus directed productions in New York and Boston of an opera by this reporter’s son.)
Opening the ART subscription season, from Aug. 21-Sept. 27 at the Loeb, will be “SIX,’’ a musical by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss that is currently running in London’s West End. Paulus describes it as an “irreverent kind of a rock-concert-reimagining of the wives of Henry VIII as a girl band. It’s fun and energetic, and yet it tells all this history: It’s history as you’ve never experienced it before.’’
From March 7-27, 2020, at the Loeb, the ART will present the world premiere of “Ocean Filibuster,’’ which was commissioned and developed via a partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Environment. Written by Lisa D’Amour, with music by Sxip Shire, and direction by Katie Pearl, “Ocean Filibuster’’ revolves around a showdown between Mr. Majority, who has introduced a bill to shrink Earth’s oceans, and the Ocean itself, which shows up at the start of the Senate debate to speak on its own behalf. Paulus described it as “a genre-defying piece of music theater’’ that is “wickedly funny and super theatrical.’’
Two shows at Oberon, the club that functions as a second stage for the ART, will be included in 2019-2020 as part of the company’s subscription season. The first will be “Black Light,’’ from Sept. 19-29, a performance piece in which Daniel Alexander Jones portrays Jomama Jones, a fictional singer. “He’s an amazing artist and it’s a virtuoso performance,’’ said Paulus. “That show is a perfect fit for Oberon.’’
From April 23-May 10, 2020, Oberon will play host to “Macbeth in Stride.’’ Created and performed by Whitney White, it’s a “concert play’’ that looks at the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and is described in press materials as “a battle cry for black female power and desire that excavates the underbelly of female ambition.’’
“This is the beginning of a relationship with her that we’re hoping will unlock several other versions of Shakespeare that she’s wanted to develop,’’ said Paulus.
White will also be the director of Aleshea Harris’s “What To Send Up When It Goes Down.’’ Described as a “response to the deaths of Black people as a result of racialized violence,’’ it will be at the Loeb Nov. 20-24 as part of the ART’s “Breakout Series.’’
Also as part of that series, the ART will present Company One Theatre’s world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s “Greater Good.’’ Described as an “immersive new play [that] interrogates our city’s history as a hub of education and asks what we’re willing to compromise for the greater good,’’ it is scheduled for July 17-Aug. 17 at the Commonwealth School in Boston.