by Sara Zweig · May 29, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #98 Sara Zweig looks at The Anthem at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre
A generation ago, Ayn Rand’s novels were staples of American literature. However, since Tea Party politicians identified her capitalist, objectivist beliefs as key components of their radical conservative movement, her works are largely regarded as ludicrous, if not contemptible, among many scholars and academics. Her influence on contemporary American politics overshadows many of her accomplishments. In addition to founding her own philosophical doctrine (objectivism), she was a fierce political voice and writer. Many of her writings fall into the dystopia/science fiction genre, an entirely male-dominated realm in the mid-twentieth century at the time of her publications.
The Anthem, a new musical adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1938 novella, certainly reminds us of Rand’s lasting legacy. Written by Jonnie Rockwell (composer), Erik Ransom (lyricist), and Gary Morgenstein (bookwriter), The Anthem steps onto the theater scenes not only amid a contentious American political atmosphere, but also at a popular point in dystopic fiction. Watching the musical, I heard echoes of some other, more contemporary dystopic works like The Hunger Games (which is evoked in the musical’s marketing materials), The Giver, 1984, and Brave New World, all of which fear a future of inhumane, tyrannical governments that rob us of our identities and individual possibilities. Each one of these works handles these fears differently, and The Anthem specifically attacks the values of a totalitarian Communist state such as Soviet Russia where Rand was born.
In The Anthem, we meet Prometheus (Jason Gotay), a citizen of the future, where all traces of individuality are washed out for the good of the state. It’s a future where jobs and sexual partners are assigned, where there is no such thing as ambition or pleasure, and where individuality is a crime punishable by death. Prometheus is a budding scientist, and when he comes upon an abandoned subway, he finds a copy of Anthem, which exposes him to a new, radical life. Together with a jungle warrior named Athena (Ashley Kate Adams), he fights to revolt against the capital as represented by the leather-clad duo Pandora (Jenna Leigh Green) and Tiberius (ex-Village People cowboy Randy Jones). Prometheus and his band of outsiders represent individuality and anarchy. Their mistrust of any kind of state-imposed laws for the sake of equality mirrors the vocal protest of conservatives against a socialist America of government handouts and self-entitlement. In the state represented by Rand, all the joy, wonder, pain, struggle, and genuineness of life is sucked dry by the doctrine of equality. To be different, to want more, is to threaten the state and the community.
The Anthem starts off as quite energetic and fun. Several of the songs are smartly written, and the best ones went to the female characters. Hera (Remy Zaken) is Prometheus’ arranged lover, and her “State-Sanctioned Love” song is a quirky and witty pop ballad that is memorable. Jenna Leigh Green is in charge of another stand-out song, the moving show-stopping number towards the end. Unique to this show is the aerial choreography by Brian Joseph Ferree. It was quite beautiful to see, but when nearly every other number incorporated it, it lost some of its allure.
All of this takes place under the glittering shimmer of a disco ball and a super kitschy set that looks inspired by an 80’s futuristic B-movie. Electronica music, cheesy sci-fi costumes, and 8-bit graphics complete the nostalgic tone. These features might have indicated the same sort of sardonic effect that a smirk or eye-roll might have had. A silliness and self-awareness infuses the technical pieces of the production, but hardly presents itself in the work itself. The Anthem takes Rand’s novella at face value. Sure, there are some plot changes and character additions, but otherwise The Anthem stays rather faithful to its source. But faithfulness can often hinder a work if the adaptation only replicates the sources, as opposed to conversing with it and deepening our thoughts on it. I had hoped that the wittiness of the show’s technical design would be reflected in the writing, but The Anthem is never quite bold enough to actually comment on itself or develop a truly unique approach to its source. For a show that bills itself as a ‘radical’ adaptation of a controversial author whose ideas evoke so many of today’s political battles, it never actually presents anything ‘radically’ different, nor does it makes connections between the work and our current moment.