Pete Mills weighs in on Titular Musical Numbers and THE HIDDEN SKY

February 11, 2010

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: http://www.pcmills.com/

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