Prospect: When did you originally write the story “The Masters,” and was there a specific inspiration for the piece that you can share?
Ursula K. LeGuin: “The Masters” was written, and first appeared in Fantastic magazine, in 1963.  It was my first published science-fiction story (as distinguished from realism or fantasy).  1963 is a long, long time ago — I’m not sure what inspired it  except for one thing:  I was a Californian new to Oregon, who needed a while to get used to a climate that for about seven months of the year consists of rain.  The ever-cloudy skies of the story are the skies of Portland, with a little exaggeration.
P: One of the major changes from your original story to The Hidden Sky is that the genders of two central characters (Ganil and Lani) have been reversed, placing a woman at the heart of the musical.  What was your response to this choice?
UL: I was delighted by this change.  In 1963, science fiction was about men (with an occasional pretty lady to scream while being carried off in the alien’s tentacles), and it hadn’t occurred to me yet to ask why.  The gender reversal is a quiet feminist action that strengthens the story both morally and emotionally.
P: What do you feel the story has gained from being expanded into a two act musical?
UL: The physical presence of the actors, the power of stage, drama and MUSIC, powerful, beautiful music.  You can’t ask for much more than that!
P: Although the story takes place in an alternate, future universe, what do you think is the most relevant aspect of the tale for a modern audience?
UL: The themes of the story, the danger of intolerant fundamentalist belief of any sort, questions of how science and morality interact, are as urgently relevant to our situation now as they were five decades ago.  Perhaps even more so.  Alas.
P: In general, what sort of music do you listen to?  Are you a fan of musical theater and if so, do you have a favorite show?
UL: I listen to early and baroque music, Spanish guitar, Schubert, Berlioz, Glass, Springsteen.  I love opera, old or modern, especially if I can be there in the theater.  I saw Oklahoma and South Pacific etc.  when they first came out and loved them, but Broadway musicals haven’t done much for me for a long time. I saw Menotti’s The Medium and The Consul when they first came out too, and still love them.  I think of The Hidden Sky not as a musical but as an opera. Is that wrong? A kiss of death?  I hope not!

Today I was reading a movie review, and near the end Roger Ebert says he was taught that a story’s title ought never appear in the story itself — it breaks the spell. Then, not fifteen minutes later, on a Family Guy episode (yes, I was wasting a lot of time today…) there was a bit about Peter getting excited whenever they say a movie’s title somewhere in the movie… like “As Good As It Gets.” After those two back-to-back encounters with a very specific topic to which I’d never given any thought before, I started thinking about my own shows: most include the title somewhere in the show. Several of them even have a title number, “Evergreen” being the latest example. I can’t help thinking that maybe Ebert’s rule doesn’t apply as much to musicals.

All of this is my very long-winded way of getting to the topic of THE HIDDEN SKY — the show currently being mounted by Prospect Theater Company — and its title song, “The Hidden Sky.”

The show is about many things. When I first encountered it as a concert at Joe’s Pub, it seemed like a show about math. I was fascinated by the long sequence in which the heroine Ganil derives the Golden Mean from the Fibonacci numbers, and then uses the ratio to construct the spiral found everywhere in the natural world. Heady stuff, and not your typical fare for musical theater! In the hour-long concert format, this is what impressed itself upon me most strongly.

But now that I’ve seen the whole show, the math seems almost secondary to me. Math supplies the raw materials out of which the story is made, but it’s not what the story is about. I’ve heard the authors speak about the theme of science versus religion — which is certainly important. But still, for me that isn’t what it’s about. When I watched the show on opening night, I saw a story about an awakening. Ganil’s awakening is what we follow… the arc… the drama. The story shows how once the soul has been awakened to something new, it must forever be changed by it.

This is what I think the title song does such a beautiful job conveying. In a world where clouds cover the sky and the sun is rarely seen, Ganil and Mede trade stories about the first time they ever saw the hidden sky, and the feelings it aroused in them. For the revolutionary Mede, seeing the sun inspires a restless longing for something he can’t find in his hometown. For Ganil, seeing the stars inspires her scientific/mathematical soul to try to count them all. A break in the clouds is a potent metaphor for an awakening: once that hidden sky — something truer, something more real — has been glimpsed, the soul longs for it. Ganil longs for knowledge just as Mede longs for change. And their duet is the beginning of a relationship in which Mede leads her on to the deeper knowledge she seeks, all the while hoping that she will become an agent of the change he seeks.

In its particulars, this is a story about an intellectual awakening — the re-discovery of mathematical knowledge. But as I experienced it, Ganil’s journey could have just as easily been an emotional awakening — with Mede arriving on the scene like a new lover who jolts the heroine out of her complacency. At times, it felt like I was watching a latter-day Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. The sense of taboo, temptation, and transgression was the same, as were the inevitably tragic consequences. And the long mathematical montage… now I saw it as a kind of deep and complete absorption very similar to falling in love. Something new has come into her world, and all of her spirit’s energy is focused on it.

Lani, the third character in this intellectual love triangle, is the husband-figure… the symbol of conventionality and conservatism. He is there to warn Ganil of the dangers that come with seeking answers beyond what society allows. But much to the show’s credit, Lani is not merely some two-dimensional villain trying to hold Ganil back. He’s allowed to argue his case just as passionately as Mede does, and we see that he loves Ganil and wants what’s best for her. The final scene between Lani and Ganil was one of those surpisingly emotional moments that snuck up on me and started me thinking, hey, maybe this is about something more than math.

-Reposted from Pete Mills’ personal blog:

In a March 2000 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, THE HIDDEN SKY composer/lyricist gave some insight into his thoughts about the play and connecting the ideas of math and spirituality:

“[THE HIDDEN SKY] isn’t in any way a math lesson. One of first things we considered was ‘How can we talk about math in a theatrical language that isn’t going to get bogged down in the details?’ and I hope we have been successful at doing that.
The audience doesn’t have to understand every detail to understand what drives mathematicians and the elation the mathematician feels when everything comes into place.”

“In the most simple terms, we see [THE HIDDEN SKY] as a journey of spiritual awakening. Ganil is looking for her home, where she fits in and can truly grow. At first she feels it is in the society she was born into, then in the underground of scientists. Finally she realizes it’s not in either place, and that she must venture out on her own…  We were fascinated by the irony of using science and mathematics as vehicles to spirituality. In our world we think of them as being diametrically opposed.”

“In the world of abstract mathematics, utility doesn’t enter into the equation. It’s all about elegance, simplicity and beauty. When they describe a thing clearly, whittle it down to its essence, and have a logical proof, that’s considered a job well done. . . .  That drive unites all of us, where we want to discover things, we want to learn how stuff works, we want to find things that are beautiful, and that’s what the musical is about. Hopefully, everyone will understand from the way we tell the story that mathematics is just a metaphor.”

-Excerpted from Keating, Douglas. “MUSICAL NUMBERS.” The Philadelphia Inquirer 1 March 2000: D01. Print.