Just as I was sitting down to write this blog entry, an email popped up on my screen. It said that the American premiere studio cast recording of The Hunchback of Notre Dame had just been recorded at “the historic Avatar Studios” in New York (fast fact alert: those studios were once used as a sound stage for the TV game show Let’s Make a Deal) and that the resulting cast album would be released in January.
The book for that Hunchback was written by Peter Parnell, author of Dada Woof Papa Hot. Like most theatergoers, I expect, I do not generally associate Parnell with musicals or with stories as contemporary as Dada Woof, which involves gay men as parents. But the fact of him writing something more personal is exciting. And, given his career-long interest in history, Parnell was ideally suited to do a book for a show about Paris in the Late Middle Ages.
For it has long seemed to me that there is no cultural/historical period that Parnell’s deep curiosity is unequipped to investigate. He made his off-Broadway debut, in 1979, with Sorrows of Stephen. In the first scene, the title character is reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Youth Werther, whose publication, in 1774, made its 24-year-old author famous.
While I would never subject any living author to a Goethe comparison, I will say that Sorrows of Stephen also put Parnell on the map. Along his subsequent journeys he has explored 19th-century American literary titans in Romance Language, in 1985, and Flaubert and more recent writers in Flaubert’s Latest, in 1992.
My own favorites among his many accomplished plays have to do less with writers than with scientists. Actually, that’s not true: I’m thinking of Trumpery, which deals with Darwin, and QED, done at LCT, which involves the physicist Richard Feynman, and both those scientists were made popular by books they’d written or had a hand in.
Trumpery was Parnell’s last drama to have a New York production. I remember fondly the mini-bibliography in the program – 16 recent studies Parnell used as research aids, in addition to primary sources. The list was positively Stoppardian, and in fact Bianca Amato, who had shone the previous season in LCT’s production of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, played Darwin’s cousin Emma.
The title Trumpery refers in part to the guilt Darwin feels for utilizing the work of Alfred Russel Wallace to describe the theory of natural selection. When the story begins, in June 1858, Darwin has just received Wallace’s essay on the subject. He conveys this information to his colleagues Joseph Hooker and TH Huxley, who set up the scenario by which both Darwin and Wallace can receive credit for the idea but Darwin the greater glory.
QED, which was premiered at the Mark Taper Forum, in Los Angeles, in 2001, and at the Vivian Beaumont, later that year, starred Alan Alda as Feynman. It gave us a day in the life of the physicist, in June, 1986, less than two years before his death. Sitting in his office at Cal Tech, Feynman talks of the Challenger disaster, the Russian Republic of Tuva, the Manhattan Project, and the nature of knowledge. He also talks about South Pacific, as he is to appear that night playing bongo drums in a student production of the show. I’ve always thought that Alda laid down the tracks for the South Pacific that landed on the same stage six-and-a-half years later!
Without bongos, alas.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.