Debates over the virtues of technology in our lives isn’t reserved for contemporary times—the mid-19th century was rife with struggles as people tried to adapt to life with steam power and other technologies. “Futurity: A Musical by The Lisps”, a new musical premiering at A.R.T. this month, explores technology, science fiction, and imagination during the Civil War.
In “Futurity”, Union Civil War soldier Julian Munro teams up with Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and science genius, to create a steam-powered brain. The pair attempts to develop a machine that would be smart enough to solve humanity’s problems, like ending the war and achieving peace.
Cesar Alvarez, the lead singer of The Lisps, recently talked with CBSBoston.com about the musical, the text of which he penned with Molly Rice.
CBSBoston.com: What inspired the musical?
Cesar Alvarez: My band has been playing together since 2005, and our work has a lot to do with old Americana. We use old American forms like vaudeville and folk music to tell contemporary stories. In 2007, I was taking a trip down South, where I’m from (I’m from North Carolina), and I was driving through Virginia thinking about the Civil War. So I just came up with this idea—what if I did a concept album about a Civil War soldier who is also a science fiction writer? It would be the perfect union of past and present.
CBSBoston.com: So it morphed from a concept album into a musical?
CA: I’ve always had an affinity for certain aspects of this American form, but I didn’t realize it until recently. I went for it, and the next thing I knew my band had a musical. We were playing around with it in New York, and people from the theater, music, and art worlds were really interested in what we were doing. A lot of contemporary musical theater makes fun of it, but that’s not what we’re doing. It’s not an ironic musical.
CBSBoston.com: What’s different about writing a musical and writing an album? Or is there a difference?
CA: I feel strongly that the musical is a form, not a genre. The form adapts itself to whatever music you’re using. In a lot of ways it isn’t much different, and we’re committed to making the musical feel native to what we do as a band. But we just finished recording the album and there were a lot of conversations in the studio we wouldn’t normally be having—should we have the character sing this part? Should we do it in character or out of it? But what’s been fun is that with a musical you have great big narrative to fill out with sounds, and that gives you purpose as you’re writing.
It was also fun to do research for this piece. It was my favorite part. I was reading old science fiction novels from the 1800s and watching Civil War documentaries.
CBSBoston.com: There’s a lot of literature from the period that explores technology, like “Frankenstein”. Can viewers expect some literary references beyond the Byronic connection?
CA: Totally. The two books that really informed this are “Frankenstein” and “The Red Badge of Courage”, which is a beautiful and short book about a guy who is trying to figure out what it is to be courageous. “Frankenstein” is also amazing because he’s a guy who is trying to be god. Both of those stories provide a really interesting template for how you think about a kid in the Civil War. He doesn’t want to be there, and he has this outrageous idea that becomes an obsession. It’s outlandish and futuristic and causes him to retreat into his imagination.
CBSBoston.com: Ada really was a math genius. Tell me about creating her character.
CA: I read her biographies and her writings to figure out how she would have responded to this interaction with the soldier. She died before the Civil War started, so it’s not a history lesson, but a complete concoction. It’s a fun way to think about who we are in relation to technology and imagination. It’s set during the Civil War but isn’t about the Civil War. It’s about you and me now, and to what extent does technology bring out the best and worst in us.
Watch the trailer:
Futurity runs March 16- April 15. For tickets and more information, visit americanrepertorytheater.org.