Last Sunday evening at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, I was transported to another world. Runyonland Productions, headed by School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior musical theater major Thomas Laub, put on a production of Adam Guettel’s “Myths and Hymns.”
The show itself is a song cycle focusing on various Greek myths like the Pegasus, Icarus and Hero and Leander. In addition to the show, the production showcased three men of Islamic, Judaic and Christian faith who spoke on their various experiences. The show as a whole focused on togetherness and the importance of breaking bread together.
Once the show started, the audience was thrown into the world of fickle gods and insane beauty. The UMMA’s exquisite Apse, filled with grand columns and art from the emergence of Romanticism, furthered my suspension of disbelief. The performers also had the voices of gods themselves. Their marvelous voices echoed through the museum. During solo numbers, the sound was tragically beautiful. The casting of each solo number was brilliantly done. Each singer embodied the, at most times, tragic myth with simplicity and elegance that was only matched by the accompaniment of a lone piano, effortlessly played by SMTD professor Jason Debord, who also music directed. Both sounds echoed up to the heavens and filled the space incredibly well considering no microphones were used.
However, during the group numbers with a full band, it was difficult to make out the meaning and lyrics of the songs due to the unusual acoustics of the museum and competing sounds. “Myths and Hymns” was directed by SMTD faculty member Geoff Packard. In his director’s note, he stated that the message of the production was “of religious tolerance and understanding” through the lense of Guettel’s “lush” music and the “glorious halls of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.” Choreography by SMTD junior Mason Reeves was expertly curated to fill the unorthodox performing space. Although the format of the show was a song cycle, the dancing seemed to further fill out the production. At times, the movement doubled as a substitute for the nonexistent set.
Adam Guettel is known for the complexity of his music both for instrumentalists and singers, neither of whom seemed to be struggling with the material. The piece ends with SMTD senior musical theater major Matthew Edward Kemp exclaiming that he is the “fall of Pegasus, the fall of Icarus.” He is all of these myths — all things godly and mortal.
The end image was of the ensemble holding hands in solidarity. Throughout the production, there would be momentary breaks from the music to listen to the men representing various religions. At first, it was unclear as to their purpose in the production. Bassel Salka, a senior studying Industrial and Operations Engineering as well as a member of the Muslim Student Association Board, was the first to speak. He spoke on his experience as a Muslim man at the University. He was initially afraid due to the extensive hate speech about Muslims in his first years here, but more recently he remembered a time when students created a wall around him as a literal protective barrier, making him feel safe in the United States for one of the first times.
The second was Jewish rabbi Josh Whinston. In his speech, he urged listeners to treat each other well. We may never know why we were put on this earth, but all we can do for now is know how we’ve treated those around us. The last speaker was Episcopal minister and University alumni Ian Reed Twiss. He spoke on how important it is to be “comfort food” for others. Even as it seems the world is descending into chaos, we must remember to eat and to feed each other. It is how we show love. It is the simplest form of showing another person that they matter.
By the end of the production, I truly felt like I had been elevated by the art and wisdom surrounding our sometimes too independent and goal-driven world. Even the least religious of us could agree that the spiritual impact of this show was inspiring. Maybe we need each other much more than we realize.