When he was 20 years-old, Greg Greene saw Les Miserables at TPAC, from the front row. For the young man interested in storytelling, and at the time, comics and graphic novels, it was a transformative experience. It wasn’t long after that he became transfixed by the work of American composer Stephen Sondheim and became obsessed with the making of his own musical. The same can be said for his then-classmate at Lipscomb University, Wes Driver, who loved film but was also becoming interested in musical theater. They were kindred spirits. And they had a dream.
Some 25 years later, that dream will finally become a reality on July 17 when the Blackbird Theater’s MYTH: A NEW MUSICAL premieres at Hillsboro High School in Green Hills. It will run through July 26.
The musical, written by Driver and Greene with music by fellow Lipscomb classmate and alumnus Michael Slayton, is set in the mythological world of ancient Greece and tells the original story of how and why the gods were cast from Mt. Olympus. It involves the gods you think you know, such as Athena and Zeus, placed in world of humor and romance, majesty and decadence, and unlikely heroism and rebellion.
“The idea first came to me as a sophomore in college,” says Greene. “I had read the great epic poems and tragedies, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno. What really struck me was who and what the Greeks were deifying. Their gods were deities, but they were not how we typically conceive of gods in western civilization. In addition to being polytheistic, there isn’t much that is ‘godly’ about the Greek gods. They are usually the least moral characters in the stories. Athena may be an exception, but Zeus, for all of his righteousness, is really a terrible person. That disparity between the ancient Greeks and what we think of gods in the present day, really fascinated me. So a story came to me about a woman who rebels.”
While the idea for the show was hatched 25 years ago, the nuts and bolts work of putting it on began about five years ago when Greene and Driver, now older and both with steady jobs and families, decided to produce MYTH and make a mark in Nashville’s theater world. It wouldn’t be easy. No existing theater company, while encouraging of the concept, could risk such a large-scale untested original musical. Many suggested approaching a university, which might have the resources.
At their alma mater, dean Mike Fernandez cautioned that MYTH would push Lipscomb’s theater machine as far as it could go.
“He told of us to think of it as a three-year process,” says Greene. “Create a theater company and work our way to it. So MYTH became the impetus for the creation of Blackbird Theater. It was a bucket list item.”
The three-years turned into five-years, but in the process, Blackbird turned itself into one of Middle Tennessee’s most vital professional theatre companies, staging ambitious productions such as Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman and John Logan’s Red. The Company was also a vehicle for original works by Driver and Greene, including its inaugural season production of the pair’s Twilight of the Gods (now in its fourth national production) and Driver’s adaptation of John Updike’s novel, Roger’s Version.
“We needed those five years to be ready to do MYTH,” says Greene. “There were so many things we had to prepare for and to develop, such as relationship management, building alliances, reaching out to the media and understanding their interests. We had to learn to found a nonprofit and to write grants. Every relationship, every bit of good will we’ve developed over the last five years is necessary to mount this kind of production. In addition to that, we needed to advance ourselves as storytellers and show directors.”
When it came time to cast MYTH, almost 100 actors and singers came out to audition for what is a 32 person cast. Citing a healthy music and theater industry in Nashville, and vibrant musical theater programs at schools such as Lipscomb, Belmont, Vanderbilt and Trevecca, Greene said Blackbird was able to cast the show almost entirely from Middle Tennessee. Among those featured in the show, both familiar and unfamiliar to Nashville theatre goers, are Corinne Bupp (Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike), an “incredible” singer and actor according to Greene, in the lead role of Princess Acacia. Darci Wantiez (Boiler Room Theatre’s Legally Blonde) plays the handmaid Tressa. Brad Brown (Blackbird’s Man and Superman) plays Kakisto, while David Arnold takes on the tall order of playing Zeus.
In addition to the 32 actors in the play, there is also a 10-piece orchestra, and a team of seven artists from the musical director to the stage manager.
“In addition to getting to honor this dream we’ve had, we get to work with these other artists, actors and musicians who are taking a huge risk to join us and do something that is dangerous. It’s an incredible honor.”
What’s next for MYTH will ultimately be determined by what happens during its Hillsboro High run.
“This is the birth of a child that has been gestating for 25 years,” says Greene. “After the show is the chance to raise it into adulthood, and of course, adulthood is Broadway. But before then, I would love to have informative audiences that react and let us know if we have what we think we have. These performances are a chance to hear what the audience has to say about it. I think they are going to be blown away.”
MYTH: A NEW MUSICAL opens on Friday, July 17 at 7:00 p.m. and runs through July 26. Visit the Blackbird Theater’s website for more info and tickets.
MYTH: A NEW MUSICAL is rated PG-13 for Greene describes as “crude humor, stage combat and general mature themes.“