El Greco Sings
Stearns, Patrick, American Theatre
Musical theatre works about painters are, in a odd sort of way, like movies about baseball stars. There's no reason they shouldn't work, but they rarely do. Goya has been the subject of hugely unsuccessful pieces by Gian Carlo Menotti and Maury Yeston. Frida, a portrayal of Frida Kahlo, was a mixed success last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And just last summer, a musical about Leonardo da Vinci titled Leonardo: A Portrait of Love was all but booed out of London's West End.
Even Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George remains a controversial work, but that piece's dramatization of artistic creation was a major reason playwright Bernardo Solano and composer William Harper became convinced that the life of El Greco could be musicalized. Rather than basing the plot on one painting - as did Sondheim - Solano Solano wanted 30 or 40 portraying El Greco's inner life as well as Inquisition-dominated Spain in the 16th century. Thanks to practicality, or perhaps the insistence of set designer Robin Wagner or director Tom O'Horgan, a mere 20 paintings are dramatized as the now-finished El Greco plays at New York's Playhouse 91 through Oct. 17.
El Greco has a budget of $250,000, thanks in part to a grant from AT&T OnStage, and is the most elaborate production ever mounted by the INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center. The cumulative impact of many paintings is essential for the effect the creative team is after.
"The faces in those paintings recur over and over again, and they were, in fact, contemporaries of El Greco - friends friends and family members," said Solano, a playwright whose best-known play is Buena Vista. "So we decided from the beginning that we wanted the story to be told by characters moving in and out of the paintings as they were modeling and being painted. That's a complex thing to do, and we took a lot of liberties. But not much is known about El Greco's personal life, and that made it easier for us in a way, because then we could just let our imaginations go crazy."
The underlying ideological concept of the piece is that the Crete-born painter - who was originally named Domenikos Theotokopoulos and trained in Italy before moving to Spain, where he died in 1614 - tried to create a bridge between earth and heaven through his art. Besides exploring what is still considered a highly dissonant use of color, El Greco created figures that became increasingly elongated, almost resembling flames arching heavenward. After spending some weeks in Spain, particularly in Toledo where El Greco spent much of his creative life, Solano and Harper began to understand why.
"Toledo is this city built on a big rock with high walls," Solano said. "Because of the walls, all you can do is look up and see the heavens above you. That's the natural thing in the city - seeking a connection with the heavens." Maybe that's a high-flown extrapolation, but Solano is the first to admit that he's always been at odds with naturalism. …