Story by Laura Barlament / Photos by Karen O'Donnell
Goddess Wheel, a new musical by Tony Award-winning Hair composer Galt MacDermot and lyricist Matty Selman, was given its world premiere by Wagner College Theatre at Snug Harbor Music Center (WCT's home away from home during the Main Hall renovations) in April.
With a huge cast of 44 actors, the play mystified, challenged, delighted, and excited. It bridged seemingly unbridgeable gaps; it unfolded its essence in student voices, while also shaping those student actors in new ways.
But the most important thing, according to co-creator Galt MacDermot, is that it was fun: “The first thing you notice with any kind of show is, 'Am I being entertained? Do I like this?' And that's what I was noticing, that I really was enjoying the show. … I mean, it's a cast of 22 women, and then they bring in the football team! There's no way that can fail.”
Act One: Goddesses and Whores
Loud, urgent music erupts from the pit as six voluptuous women, draped in flowing, nude-colored chiffon gowns, enter the stage and start a whirling dance. Astrological symbols and sparkling lights swirl around them, while they chant a mysterious invocation in tight harmonies:
When chickens shelter safe indoors
And shun the roosters' cry,
Then Zeus will put an end to wars
And set the low on high …
But when chickens fly the coop
And make the cock their friend,
Then all of Greece will loop de loop
And war will never end …
What does it mean? They aren't really talking about domestic fowl. These are the title characters, the goddesses of the wheel, and their riddle captures the central premise of this musical, and of its ancient source: Lysistrata, a comedy written in 411 BC by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. The women of Athens want an end to the Peloponnesian War, which raged between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BC. Their solution: a sex strike. As Aristophanes' Lysistrata puts it, “If we want to force the men to make peace, we must renounce … sex.” As Selman's Lysistrata puts it, “Shun the rooster's cry … means … stop making love?”
But this congruence spells the end of similarities between the ancient and modern plays. Goddess Wheel explodes the tight boundaries of Aristophanes' one-act romp: The musical veers from raunchy comedy to ragged grief to tender intimacy to historical commentary. Selman and MacDermot morphed Aristophanes' housewives into prostitutes, adding an incisive economic motivation to the sex-strike concept (no soldiers, no business). They added a panoply of otherworldly characters: the goddesses of the title, plus the Oracle of Delphi, plus a Woody-Allen-esque Hades. They sent the Athenian ladies through a trippy dream sequence and on a mission to the underworld. They put the Athenian and Spartan armies on stage, and they turned Aristophanes' idyllic ending on its head — all to the infectious beat of MacDermot's signature rock-funk-Afro-Caribbean musical style.
In Goddess Wheel, MacDermot and Selman created a world of entertaining opportunities — and working with Wagner students led them there.
It all started last fall, when the Wagner actors did their first read-through of the play. It had a lot of good tunes, clever lyrics, and a bare-bones script.
“It was vague,” director Rusty Curcio (shown in the photo below), head of dance at Wagner, says diplomatically of the show at that stage. It didn't have much dialogue connecting the songs. Despite the title, it had no goddesses. It had no Spartan army. But Curcio was unfazed. Coming from a background in dance (he was a longtime member of the Trockaderos dance troupe), Curcio says, he's accustomed to “starting with a seed and building a story out of it.”
And he chose the cast accordingly. He selected them for the creativity and range they demonstrated in audition, rather than how well they fit a certain character. “On this kind of show, they needed to have versatility,” he says.
At that point, Curcio had already been involved with the work-in-progress for years. The connection was made back in the spring of 2006, when he directed MacDermot's renowned rock musical Hair at Wagner. MacDermot, a longtime Staten Island resident, came to see the show and loved the production, so he reached out to Curcio and showed him the Goddess Wheel project he had underway with Matty Selman (who, by the way, grew up in Staten Island's West Brighton).
It's highly unusual for a college theater to premiere a show, and the students approached it with anticipation and trepidation.
“The reason why I wanted to do the piece is because it was new, fresh, and exciting,” says Robert Keir '14, who played an Athenian soldier, Thanassis. (At Curcio's prompting, Selman gave names to all of the soldiers, who ended up with such colorful monikers as Buttious, Bulgious, and Erectius.) “This was something that we had to create. Almost like giving someone a coloring book, and you have to fill the shades you choose.”
Act 2: The Athenians and the Athletes
ONE TWO THREE FOUR ONE TWO THREE FOUR! bellows the Athenian army as they march down the aisle and up to the stage. They face the audience in unison with a bare-armed salute, resplendent in white chaps, holding tiny white shields bearing the male symbol, and white épées thrust out from their enormous white codpieces, emblazoned with the female symbol.
It's a sight gag guaranteed to earn laughter.
Fast forward to late in Act 2: The stage is set for peace to be made; the Athenian women have lured the army, on leave from war, into an amphitheater, and have them on their knees in a trance; when down the aisles, carrying enormous spears and wearing little more than black boots and helmets, creep a troop of the biggest men ever seen on a Wagner stage, looking ready to kill.
Curcio always knew the show needed a Spartan army — and that idea not only proved what MacDermot calls Curcio's “comic genius,” but also opened doors on the Wagner campus where walls had once existed.
Curcio's idea was to recruit student-athletes to play the Spartans — “a stroke of brilliance,” he calls it with a laugh. “I just thought it would be fun. There's also the size difference,” he adds — referring to the build of a 250-pound football player or a 6'5” basketball player versus the typical theater guy. Aristophanes' Lysistrata derives some of its humor by playing up class differences between the Athenians and Spartans. Curcio knew that the equivalent at Wagner would be the social gap between student-athletes and student actors on campus.
Besides, work was already being done to mend that gap. Led by a football and track athlete, John Garrish '12, the theater and athletic student advisory boards had started a program they called “Bridging the Gap” to bring the two socially estranged groups together.
Garrish had a small role in Wagner's spring semester production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He started talking to his fellow athletes about being a part of the new play. “He told us about it during the [football] season, and at first everyone was like, 'No, I'm not doing the play, bro,'” recounts Derrick Forrest '12, a 250-pound defensive lineman who had last acted in a play in the eighth grade.
“And then when I came back from winter break, I was like, 'Man, you only live once,'” Forrest continues. “Let me see what it's like.” He and seven other football, basketball, and lacrosse players joined Goddess Wheel's Spartan army, helping to create a hilarious fight sequence and jamming along in the final dance number.
As it turned out, Forrest and his fellow athletes loved the experience and were inspired by the actors' hard work. “Every time before we'd go out to walk the aisles, we would just sit there, hyping each other up, saying, 'Showtime, let's go,'” he says. Their pre-show rituals were to do pushups and curls with a weightlifting bar in the back of the auditorium. “I think it relaxed us. It relaxed us and gave us a little pump.”
Finale: Finding Their Song
“For me, the writing experience takes on a whole new dimension when you're in rehearsal,” says Matty Selman. “Because you can see the people, you can write for them, everything's coming alive, you have the songs, so it's just a magical time.”
Much of the magic that audiences saw on the stage came from the alchemy of a writer shaping his words to life, and students accepting a very different kind of rehearsal process: one where you had to “live in the unknown,” in Curcio's words, “to be ready for whatever happens.”
Often, the students would come into rehearsal with one script and walk out with another. “The most amazing part for me was being able to write on the spot,” says Selman. “I would say, 'OK, wait. We're not going to say that anymore. Danielle, can you say this?' And I'd write it and hand her a piece of paper. And I'd say, 'Rusty, is that ok?' Rusty would say, 'Yeah, it's your show.' And suddenly we'd do it.”
The Danielle whom Selman mentions is Danielle Dallacco '12, who starred as Lysistrata, the heart and soul of the entire show. She admits that she had her moments of frustration during rehearsals. But, she says, she grew to love it. “I feel completely connected to my character because I breathed life into her,” she says. “Because this show is a premier work, she only ever existed on paper. I was honored to be the first to ever bring her to life.”
Her fellow actors echoed this thought: It was scary, exciting, and ultimately extremely self-fulfilling to help create their roles. Caroline LaTorre '12, for example, is proud that she took the goddess character of Hera, who speaks the play's opening words, from non-existent to “a driving force.”
“I loved that from this experience I got to learn about the process a new musical undergoes upon production,” she says. “My takeaways from this experience are: be open-minded, open to change.”
As the goddess Afro-dite (Aphrodite in an Afro … get it?), Heather Kirschenbauer '12 of course played a central role in a play pitting love against war. She says she found in an initially uncomfortable situation a liberating power. “After months of rehearsal, I feel that this role has helped me find my own self,” she says. “I had to connect and be confident in my own sensuality.
“Also the level of teamwork on this production was more so heightened than in other productions,” she continues. “It was definitely a more organic experience, and the level of trust that was given to us was truly remarkable. Rusty trusted us to make a lot of our own decisions.”
“My sense of it is that this Wagner world premiere was as much of a critical help to me as a writer, as I think it was an invaluable experience for the students in their education,” says playwright Selman. “No matter what they do in their lives going forward, to have something like this come off the page and see how integral they are to the outcome, it can't be anything other than empowering to them.”
Selman plans to work toward publishing Goddess Wheel, with a dedication page acknowledging Wagner College Theatre and all of the student actors who brought the show to life.
The show ends with everyone on stage and up and down the aisles, actors and athletes, Athenians and Spartans, mortals and goddesses, singing and dancing together:
It's the end song
And the notes we bring
Are freedom's slaves.
Go on, sweet notes, escape your staves
And find your song.
“When you hear 40 people or so singing on stage, it's thrilling,” says MacDermot. “I loved it!”
Christina Angeli '11 contributed to the reporting of this story.
LEARN MORE: An interview with composer Galt MacDermot.