Dismissing the assumption immediately, J.D. Steele said, "There is no comparison between this and 'Gospel at Colonus.'" The composer, who is writing music for the chorus in "The Burial at Thebes," which opens Saturday on the Guthrie proscenium stage.
It is tempting to draw parallels. Steele and his family were key performers in "Colonus," the 1985 marriage of Greek drama and gospel music by Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson. The work was developed in the Twin Cities and had a celebrated run at the Guthrie before landing on Broadway in 1988.
"Colonus," however, put the story of Oedipus into a black Pentecostal church with an emphasis on ecstatic proclamation. In "Thebes," Steele and director Marcela Lorca aim to stage a show that uses music and movement to support Seamus Heaney's poetic adaptation of "Antigone."
"This music is written in response to the text," Steele said. "I leaned more toward a Middle Eastern sound than gospel."
Certainly, the Guthrie would not mind if the production were to follow the trajectory of "Colonus," which has had a long history. But as with any staging, first things first. Steele and Lorca have a cast that includes Stephen Yoakam as Theban King Creon, Sun Mee Chomet as Antigone and Greta Oglesby and Regina Marie Williams, who both worked with Lorca in the musical "Caroline, or Change."
Heaney's adaptation was first produced in 2004. It faithfully follows the story in which Antigone is condemned to death after challenging the edict of King Creon to refuse her brother a proper burial. It is the third leg of Sophocles' Theban plays, all dealing with the legacy of Oedpius. In "Antigone," the playwright posits a simple and clear tension that blossoms into myriad questions. Do the rights of the individual supersede the needs of the state? Does eternal law trump mortal law? Why are the religious needs of survivors and respect for a corpse more important than civil order?
Sophocles' resolution piles on even more grist, as Antigone dies for her ideology and Creon is left to contemplate the wages of his hubris. And still there is more -- about the marginalization of women, whose right to bury the dead was usurped by Creon. Too, it is a reminder of the personal cost when governments wage war.
Getting back together
Steele and Lorca worked on "Iphigenia at Aulis" for the Guthrie BFA project last March, and the director wanted Steele back for "Thebes."
"We have come in theater to a realism that strips the Greeks of music and movement, and I wanted to bring that back," Lorca said. "There is great power in spoken word, but music amplifies the emotion and gets you to the heights that the Greeks were going for."
Lorca and Steele have lodged their hopes for this visceral power in the chorus of Robert Robinson, T. Mychael Rambo, Lee Mark Nelson, Joe Nathan Thomas and Richard Ooms.
Once Steele and Lorca decided which lines should be spoken and which sung, Steele had the magic happen.
"I write on my feet," he said, explaining how he takes dialogue, rolls it around in his head ("Marcela's vision helps inspire what I hear musically") and then sings the line to one of his vocalists. Then he'll give a harmony to another, and another. Or the singers create their parts. None of this is written down. Once the tunes start to sink in, the singers record the phrase.
"That's good because I can't remember it the next day," Steele said.
The other possibility is that he'll go away from the rehearsal and come in with something new the next day.
"You know, that radio in my head is always on," he said.
Sophocles was popular stuff in the decade just ended, when some Americans felt the needs of national security had usurped individual rights. "Thebes" was produced at Theatre in the Round in 2010; director Greg Banks twice staged "Antigone" for Children's Theatre Company, in 2003 and 2006; in the fall of 2005, Jeune Lune and Ten Thousand Things both produced "Antigone."
"The rhetoric from the king sounds like it could come from American presidents," Lorca said.
She and Steele said they've stepped on each other's toes ("joyfully," she said) quite a bit preparing their production.
"I hope that through the scenes and music, the play is lifted into a moving experience," she said. "You should be moved at the end, rather than just depressed."