The 1993 book by Alan Lightman is a collection of spare, clear but dreamlike ruminations on time, said to be Einstein's sleepy visions leading up to his famed relativity theory. The work of fiction has Einstein dreaming of ways time might be different than how we know it — time stopping, time repeating itself, time travel, etc.
Adapting the book, which does not jump out at a reader as an obvious musical theatre project, are composer and co-lyricist Joshua Rosenblum and lyricist-librettist Joanne Sydney Lessner, the husband-wife team who penned the 2000 Off Broadway musical comedy, Fermat's Last Tango, which also mixed music and science.
The theatrical rights to the book are controlled by Brian Schwartz, a physics professor and City University of New York administrator who had enjoyed Fermat's Last Tango. He contacted Lessner and Rosenblum and invited them to explore Einstein's Dreams as a musical.
"It never occurred to me that it could be a musical, because it doesn't have a plot or characters," Rosenblum told Playbill On-Line.
But the writers liked the challenge, and jumped into it, creating some characters and rethinking some things. They remained "inspired by the tone and the beautiful, haunting quality of the book," the composer said. The American Museum of Natural History, with the Science Center and the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, present the reading Einstein's Dreams, billed as "a musical romance," 7 PM Jan. 23 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, in the Kaufmann Theater.
This public reading follows a private reading of a previous draft in fall 2002. The cast includes Tom Beckett (a vet of "Remember WENN" and Broadway's Epic Proportions, as Einstein) and tenor Peter Büchi (a tenor at La Scala for four years), Piper Goodeve (a regional actress who has appeared at the Weston Playhouse and the McCarter), Maree Johnson (the respected Australian actress known in cabaret and musicals), Joanne Lessner (Broadway's Cyrano), Michael McCoy (Broadway's The Phantom of the Opera), Rebecca Panovka (a nine-year-old actress), David Pittu (an Atlantic Theatre Co. regular who appeared in the Parade tour) and Dorothy Stanley (Show Boat). John Znidarsic directs, with musical direction by the composer. Associate producer is Linda Merman.
The show is written for a cast of nine — four men, four women and a little girl. The three main characters are Einstein, his pal Besso (played by Pittu) and a mystery woman named Josette (played by Johnson).
The chapters, all telling fantasies of time, are tied together in the show by a newly created character Rosenblum calls "Einstein's dream woman," Josette.
"She sort of intrigues and teases and guides him all at the same time," Rosenblum said. "She's very much a real woman to him, partly because he's unhappy with his wife, which was true in real life."
Lessner said, "While the book is very well structured for what the book is, it doesn't translate easily to dramatic structure. It's this series of dreams, and then it just ends. There's no 'Eureka' moment of 'Oh, I've discovered relativity!'"
Rosenblum observes, "The answer to his romantic dreams and his intellectual dreams all seem to be embodied in this woman, who is a fantasy and not a real person."
In the show, Lessner said, "You see the young, struggling Einstein not being taken seriously, not happy in his life, escaping into his dreams."
"In some ways it really is structured like a conventional musical in spite of the elusive nature of the book," Rosenblum said.
The score has a whiff of Vienna and late 19th century Mahler and Strauss, Rosenblum said, but the show is very much in the tradition of musical theatre. Lessner promised the score is "hummable."
Tickets for the reading of Einstein's Dreams are $10. For reservations, call (212) 769-5200 or visit www.amnh.org.
York Theatre Company in Manhattan presented Rosenblum and Lessner's Fermat's Last Tango Nov. 21-Dec. 31, 2000. Mel Marvin (Tintypes) directed.
The cast, preserved on a recording, included Gilles Chiasson (Scarlet Pimpernel, the original Rent), Edwardyne Cowan, Mitchell Kantor, Jonathan Rabb, Chris Thompson, Christianne Tisdale and Carrie Wilshusen. Milton Granger was musical director.
The Last Tango production notes ask, "What happens when a competitive, arrogant 17th-century mathematician just won't stay dead?" The show is inspired by the true story of Andrew Wiles, the Princeton professor who proved "Fermat's Last Theorem" — the 350 year-old problem regarded as the Everest of mathematics.
The show took a whimsical, irreverent look at the people behind the math.
The notes indicated, "The sneering, foppish Fermat returns from the AfterMath (where dead mathematicians go, of course) to torment the professor in his quest for a proof. Along the way, Pythagoras, Newton, Euclid and Gauss join in the catchy melodies, which range from operetta to blues to the tango of the title."
In its development, the show had the title, Proof, but then David Auburn's play of the same name (about a Chicago math professor and his daughter) became a hit Off-Broadway and then on Broadway. The name was changed to include the musical "tango" reference.
"When we started working on Fermat's Last Tango in December 1996, we had no idea that it would eventually be perceived as part of an unprecedented trend of stage works about math and science," Lessner told Playbill On Line. "We were tremendously excited to see, last season, the success of Copenhagen and Proof, among others, and we, along with [York artistic director] Jim Morgan realized that the time for a musical that takes math as its milieu was now or never."
Composer and co-lyricist Rosenblum wrote the songs and incidental music for Quincy Long's hit Off-Broadway play, The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite at the Atlantic Theater Co. He has twice been a finalist in the ASCAP Grants to Young Composers competition and is a past recipient of two Meet the Composer Fund grants. Previous theatre pieces include Mortimer's Risk, a musical for children; Lesser Pleasures (premiered at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst); and Arabian Nights — like Fermat's Last Tango, a collaboration with his wife, Joanne Sydney Lessner. Rosenblum has conducted nine Broadway and off-Broadway shows, including Miss Saigon, Anything Goes, Arcadia and Falsettos, and he has conducted world premiere productions for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the BAM Next Wave Festival, the Vineyard Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and Lincoln Center Theater. He is a graduate of Yale and the Yale School of Music.
Co lyricist and librettist Lessner is the author of the plays Chess Set, Critical Mass and Crossing Lines, which was selected as an alternate for the 1995 Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference. She contributed book and lyrics to the musical Arabian Nights, which received staged readings at the York Theatre Company and Arts & Artists at St. Paul's.
As an actress, she appeared on Broadway in Cyrano: The Musical, and Off Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, Company and That's Life! She earned a B.A. in music, from Yale.
Of Fermat's Last Tango, Lessner said at the time: "It's about obsession, a real-life quest that lasted 30 years, the fruit of which yielded the single most extraordinary contribution to modern mathematics. It's Rocky, Don Quixote, even The Fantasticks — boy gets proof, boy loses proof, boy gets proof. We knew going in that the subject matter could be potentially forbidding, so we focused on keeping the piece accessible and, above all, fun. Josh had long toyed with the idea of writing a 'catchy' opera, and it turned out that the tuneful and rhythmic elements of our show superseded the fact that it was through-sung and had some classical influences. By the middle of the process it became clear that Fermat's Last Tango was a musical, not an opera; in addition to the tango, there are several recognizable dance forms. There's a rag, a grand waltz and even a hoedown for the four luminaries (Pythagoras, Euclid, Newton, and Gauss) who populate the AfterMath. I like to call them the 'singing and dancing dead mathematicians.' Our director, Mel Marvin, likens them to characters out of Monty Python's Flying Circus — so serious and full of themselves that they are incongruously funny."