If Caleb Mathura could go back to when he started working on the new musical “Hephaestus,” he wouldn’t get too attached to the melodies. Or the lyrics. Or entire numbers.
“If you really like a song, it might be cut,” said Mathura, who plays the title role in Music Theatre of Madison’s premiere. “Hephaestus” opens this weekend in the Memorial Union Play Circle.
“It was hard to switch into a new time signature, a new key,” Mathura said. “It was in my muscle memory. I drilled it too much.”
New musicals, just like novels, stories and plays, go through many iterations on their way to completion. Musicals are a very collaborative form, as different people can offer feedback on structure and consistency within the script, which instruments play which songs, and how everything will translate from page to stage.
“Hephaestus,” a new musical about the Greek god of fire and the forge, is still a work in progress as it goes into its first fully staged production. If a song doesn’t make sense or the plot starts to meander, the creative team can, and does, make a change.
All this means that actors like Mathura, a 2018 Verona Area High School grad and a rising sophomore at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, have to be agile.
“Even yesterday we were cutting lines, adding lines,” Mathura said. “It keeps you on your toes.”
One musical, please!
“Hephaestus” began with a single song Nathan Fosbinder wrote and shared on his Facebook page a couple of years ago. “Her Song,” which now ends Act I, begins in sadness and self-pity (“if only I could be the one she wants ... I’m a fool”) and ends with Hephaestus’ declaration of enduring love for the goddess Aphrodite.
Meghan Randolph, director of the 13-year-old company Music Theatre of Madison, heard the song and was intrigued. MTM is known for doing new and rarely produced musicals; Randolph gets fired up by edgy shows like “Murder Ballad,” staged at the Brink Lounge last year, and new musicals like “Held,” another locally-written musical fantasy coming this fall to Threshold on the east side.
Randolph reached out to Fosbinder. “She was like, 'Is this from a show, is this a thing?'” Fosbinder said. “Can MTM do it?”
It wasn’t from a show, at least not yet. Fosbinder, a La Follette High School graduate, was then in his senior year at the Boston Conservatory. (He’s since earned a masters in musical theater writing from New York University.)
“I think I knew it was meant to be from a piece about Greek gods, but I didn’t know if it was a song cycle or a show,” Fosbinder said. “I didn’t have the skill set to write a show yet. When Meghan said, ‘If you can show me what this is, we’ll do it,’ it was a huge leap of faith on her part.”
Fosbinder jokes that Randolph “put in an order for ‘one musical, please!’” In 2018, MTM did an 85-minute workshop version of “Hephaestus” featuring Mathura in the title role.
Then, for the past year, Fosbinder, Randolph and orchestrator/ music director Mark Wurzelbacher fleshed out the script and developed the music.
“Mark has taken the score from black and white and put it into color,” Fosbinder said. “I wrote a blueprint and Mark built the house.”
Wurzelbacher set the show for six players: keyboard, violin, cello, guitar (acoustic and electric), electric bass, and winds (flute/clarinet/saxophone). The score was influenced most prominently by Alan Menken — as a kid, Fosbinder was a fan of Disney’s “Hercules” — and Jason Robert Brown, best known for “The Last Five Years” and “Parade.”
“I put myself in the mode of a particular song as I orchestrate to give me a direction to go in,” Wurzelbacher said. “The ones that take the longest are the more theatrical ones, the ones that belong only in the theatrical story. The songs that could stand alone are more straightforward. You get in the groove of the song and follow it out to its conclusion.”
The story now has a tighter narrative structure than it did last year, Wurzelbacher said. There were characters in the reading that felt auxiliary, so Fosbinder made them essential to the plot, with “more of a sense of perpetual motion, of the story propelling itself forward.”
An Olympian knot
“Hephaestus” is set on Mount Olympus amongst the “most dysfunctional family that ever existed, or rather, didn’t,” Fosbinder said.
Hera (SaraLynn Evenson) is jealous and angry with Zeus (Sean Goodman Jones). All the male gods are in love with Aphrodite (Kelsey Anne Johnson), who herself seems most attached to her brother/lover Ares (Andy White).
Hera and Demeter (Emily Glick) hatch a plot to marry off Hephaestus to Aphrodite as a way of getting back at Zeus. This backfires in rather fiery ways.
Fosbinder thinks of the gods like modern day superheroes, with one specific power to wield. Hepheastus is interesting to him because his flaw is physical and visible — a limp — versus vanity, anger, deviousness or jealousy, which the other gods have plenty of.
University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of classics William Brockliss, who’s been accompanying MTM to library events this summer, likes to phrase it as a question.
“He likes to ask, if you were to poll a bunch of people and say, ‘Is God male?’ most people would say yes,” Fosbinder said. “‘Is God female?’ Some. And if you were to say, ‘Is God disabled?’ no one would raise their hand. That is specifically why Hephaestus is so fascinating to me.”
When the show closes, Mathura will fly back to school and audition for Point Park’s season (“The Adding Machine,” “Parade,” a workshop of “Pump Up The Volume”). Fosbinder will go back to Harlem, where someone has been subletting his apartment.
And he’ll continue to work on “Hephaestus.” He knows the show isn’t done, but it’s easier to get a production up at a New York theater when it’s been on its feet somewhere else.
“We’ll have recordings and actual pictures and renderings,” Fosbinder said. “It’ll be a literal thing I can show people. MTM is making it so much easier just by taking the chance at all.”