Sci-Fi Poetry? Meta-physical musical? Director Brien Lang on The Wilbury Theatre Group’s genre-defying Futurity

Artboard 3“We wrote a Civil War sci-fi musical,” states frontman César Alvarez and his New York-based indie rock band The Lisps. “It will melt your heart and ignite your brain.” This genre-defying musical is Futurity, a wild ride of a tale in which Civil War soldier Julian, along with the meta-physician Ada Lovelace, invents a steam-powered artificial intelligence in the hope to end war.

Under the direction of Brien Lang, Providence’s Wilbury Group will be the first company to produce Futurity as a standalone theater piece – without the Lisps, but with their blessing – from December 6 through 23.

While the show was hailed by The Economist as “the musical for people who don’t like musicals,” Wilbury artistic director Josh Short states it is also much more. “To call Futurity simply a ‘musical’ would be an understatement. What César and The Lisps have created is one of the rarest of experiences in the theater. This is a piece that, not unlike Hamilton, challenges our understanding of what theater can be.”

I spoke to the play’s director Brien Lang about the show’s innovative and challenging themes as well as how the piece blurs the lines between being a play, concert or musical.

Marilyn Busch (Motif): How did you come to find the show? Did you see the NY production?

Brien Lang: Wilbury’s artistic director, Josh Short, has been working with César for a while now to bring this show to Providence. I didn’t get a chance to see the NY production – which is good and bad, of course. I don’t have that as a frame of reference, but on the upside, I don’t have any pre-conceived notions coming into the process.

MB: How hard is it to stage something that was built by someone else? Can you detach their specific DNA from this show? Should you?

BL: Fortunately, Josh Short and César have been talking about this for a long time so we are proceeding with the Lisps’ full blessing, and César has mentioned several times that he is excited to see what we do with it. There is definitely a unique stamp on it and, throughout the rehearsal process, we have hit some moments where we’ve labored to be true to the original material, but there are also some instances where we’ve played around with things to help tell our version of this wild, wild story.

MB: Is this the perfect marriage, say, of a poetic science fiction musical for history buffs?

BL: There is a lot of great poetry in the piece – César is a wonderful lyricist and the play explores some fascinating themes. In addition to the sci-fi element of the Steam Brain, there is the idea of an artist’s and creator’s responsibility to their work and their audience, the idea of forging your own destiny despite the cards stacked against you and some really, really intriguing songs about the connections between all of us.

There are some liberties taken with pure historical accuracy; in the first scene of the play two characters specifically tell the audience, “Do not attempt to learn about history from this musical.” But there is certainly enough math, invention and history thrown in to keep everyone happy!

MB: Is there a specific music style the show taps into?

BL: I’ve been describing the music as ‘alt-folk’ in terms of the structure and feel of a lot of the songs, but there is a great variety of musical styles throughout. We’ve got some great gospel-tinged numbers, a full-out musical theater moment and other songs that range from wistful to deeply introspective. It’s been a whole lot of fun to work with a piece that has such a wealth of fantastic music.

MB: Is there a separate band or do the cast members play instruments?

BL: The cast is the band, which was an added ‘fun’ element of the casting process, because unlike a regular straight play or even musical, we had to assemble a group of actors who could act, sing and play music. We are very lucky to have the crew we do, and the specific talents of our cast have helped to create some very fun and unique instrumentation. It also helps that our music director, Milly Massey, is extremely talented and wildly inventive.

MB: How would you describe the look and feel of the show?

BL: One of the really interesting things about this piece is César’s desire to reimagine the whole convention of the musical. The idea we’re working with is that this is a band telling a story, so the lines between concert and musical get crossed back and forth quite a bit. Our goal is to have the audience feel like they’re walking into a concert and then, as things pick up steam (pun intended), they get pulled into the worlds of our characters.

We have two wonderful actors in the leads. Alexander Platt, who Providence audiences will remember from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is playing Julian Munro, Union soldier and inventor of the Steam Brain. Meg Sullivan, who is the director of the Manton Avenue Project, is playing Ada Lovelace, who was one of the founders of what has become modern computer science. As with the rest of the cast, we’ve lucked out because not only are they great actors, they are also very talented singers and musicians.

MB: Who makes up your design team?

BL: We are very fortunate to have an extremely talented and inventive design team. Keri King, who will be familiar to Wilbury audiences for her work on Skin of Our Teeth, Church and Pirates of Penzance, is designing our set. Kelly Lipsey, who designed lights for Church, is on lights and Emily Taradash is making her Wilbury debut as our costume designer.

MB: What do you want audiences to take away with them from Futurity?

BL: My hope is that audiences will have a fantastic time joining us for this ride. I can guarantee that it will be a unique experience and we are all excited to continue the Wilbury tradition of exploring new means of storytelling that will challenge and engage our audience. Also, there are some incredibly catchy numbers in the score so I challenge you to walk out of the theater not humming at least one of the songs!

The Wilbury Theatre Group presents the Rhode Island premiere of Futurity Dec 6 – 23 at 40 Sonoma Court, PVD​. For tickets, call 401-400-7100 or go online at thewilburygroup.org. For those looking for a taste of César Alvarez & The Lisps music, the 2012 cast album is on Soundcloud here: soundcloud.com/thelisps/sets/futurity.

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