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Science and Art Collide in Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs

Helen R. Murray is the director of Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs.
Helen R. Murray is the director of Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs.
Aurora Fox

Helen R. Murray arrived at the Aurora Fox as executive producer two years ago, and under her leadership, the theater company has thrived, creating a fascinating lineup of plays that included the lyrical musical Songs for a New World, Tony Kushner’s thought-provoking musical Caroline or Change, and a satirical look at race in Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies. This year began with The Squirrels, about a war between red and gray squirrels that taught us rodents can’t vomit and a squirrel sometimes bites off a rival's testicles, while also providing a searing parable about race, conflict and immigration.

This weekend, Marc Acito’s musical Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs opens in a world premiere, directed by Murray herself. She and Acita — a novelist and award-winning playwright — have collaborated before, and have been working together on this production.

The show is based on the real-life friendship between two twentieth-century giants, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and famed opera singer Marian Anderson. Their friendship began in 1937, when Einstein invited Anderson to stay at his home. She was performing at Princeton, where he taught, and had been denied hotel lodging because of her race. A longtime friendship ensued. Acito imagines the scenes between the two in the process of exploring themes of science, art, race, faith and friendship.

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Mary Louise Lee, Denver’s first lady — a strong supporter of the arts, and herself an acclaimed singer (she starred in Caroline or Change) — plays Anderson. Musical direction is by Andrew Fischer, vocal music and music theory teacher for Littleton Public Schools.

“The relationship between Jewish music and black music has always been intriguing to me,” Fischer noted in a statement. “When we look at the history of oppressed people, we often find common ground in the artistry of oppressed and persecuted groups.”

We spoke with Murray recently about her approach to the play, her work at the Fox, and her impressions of Denver.

Westword: Can you tell us more about your friendship with Marc Acito, and how Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs began?

Helen R. Murray: Marc and I first met when I developed and produced his first stage play. Going through that development and production process showed us how well we work together. He has a fascinating and unique style of writing that meshes contemporary or historical real-world events with surreal mindscapes. Simply put, I find his work fun to produce. Ours is not just a professional partnership, but a true friendship, as well. It makes for a lovely shorthand when we work together, and a bonus late dinner companion when we have long work days.

He first pitched Secrets to me when we were riding in the car together, on the way to rehearsal for another play of his that I produced and directed — a one-man stage adaptation of his novel How I Paid for College. When he told me his idea for Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs, I was immediately intrigued. I have been with the script from draft one. It’s wild to see how it has evolved.

Can you describe your approach as director?

I am all about the details. I tend to be old-school when it comes to the dramaturgical arc. I tend to ask a lot of objective-based questions during rehearsals, mostly because what a character wants is going to be a hugely important part of why an audience will be willing to go on a journey with her. When it comes to staging, I am heavily influenced by [Anne] Bogart and [Harold] Clurman's teachings, and by directors who have shaped the way I think we should behave as human beings in a rehearsal room.

Kirsten Kelly and Jerry Whiddon from NYC and D.C., respectively, always create an open, inviting, safe room in which all artists are free to create. I use a ton of their tricks. I care a lot about safety for artists — that includes the maintenance of safe spaces and safe environments. I have had some training in intimacy directing, and that, too, has shaped the way I choose to approach important moments. I guess the quick way of saying it is: I strive to create a safe space so artists trust me and know they’re supported in taking bigger risks. And then we make it all look good!

I think novelist and scientist C.P. Snow famously talked about two cultures — science and humanities — and how practitioners of each didn't understand the other. So it fascinates me that both in form and content, Secrets takes this on. I'd love your personal thoughts. And also thoughts on the way musicals are changing as a form.

Musicals are changing! I completely agree. This show is a perfect example of how, in more and more “straight theater,” music is being used both diegetically [the songs are a realistic part of the narrative and action. Example: A mother singing a lullaby to her child] and non-diegetically [the action is reinforced or commented on by the music in a non-realistic way. Example: Any big, splashy show tune in a musical]. In doing so, these pieces are turned into “plays with music.” These unique shows are, of course, not full musicals. But they are being nudged in that direction. What compels me most with all these musically theatrical formats are the questions: Why do we need to sing? What makes a character or a moment need to express itself through music?

Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs walks the line between the theatrical forms I mentioned by allowing the characters to sing, because there is a real reason to float away from reality into something bigger.

As for science and humanities, I think our modern world has left C.P.'s thoughts on two cultures in the dust. I find them equally beautiful, and we now see the humanities often finding a back seat to science, which he asserted was the ignored child of the education system at the time. I am a science junkie. I find art in science. I am artistically inspired by its findings. And I have known more than a few scientists who feel the same way. And though I never met the guy, I feel confident that Albert Einstein was one of them.

When you came to Colorado, it seemed you were looking for a place where you could experiment, go bold, test boundaries. Many directors say this, and I'm interested in your prevailing philosophy as an artist, how you select your productions, how this one fits your vision. And perhaps what the Fox brings to the Denver scene and how it fits into it.

I don't know that I was looking for a place to experiment, exactly. Rather, I was excited to find a community that was willing to give me a chance to do the kind of work I care about. We always see new plays/musicals as a risk, but I am unsettled by that idea and hope to see a change. We seem willing to take a chance on a movie or a concert or a restaurant. We’re thrilled to try something new and test boundaries for those mediums. I wonder why new theater isn’t as easily embraced among other new cultural thrills.

I never think about my programming as limit-testing. But I am definitely attracted to bold work that explores themes, issues and ideas that we are all wrestling with today. Sometimes that is social, political, ethical or moral, but it is always about how we commune together to share in a story. I am working to make sure that the Fox is always inclusive of our surrounding community, and looking to find a balance in the stories we tell and the storytellers who tell them. Just being an ally to varied voices can't be the goal; being a champion for those voices must be the ultimate goal. That requires putting varied narratives on the stage with the full breadth of a theater’s artistic and financial support behind them.

Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs allows for the storytellers to be ones of both faith and science; titanic, historical figures from both black and Jewish communities, telling a common story about the American experience. And it allows for these things to be expressed in imperfect ways. Which is honest.

Honesty on stage is very big for me. If I had to give you my artistic statement, it would probably be: I create work that speaks to our connective tissue as human beings in a safe space where a multitude of perspectives are welcome, and what we make together is engaging.

In the two years you've been at the Fox, what were the biggest surprises? Disappointments? Joys and triumphs? What do you observe of local audiences?

Biggest surprise: How nothing stops for snow. Seriously. Back in D.C. we cancel rehearsals and shows a lot due to snow. Coloradans are no joke. They show up!

Disappointments: I wish there were some healthy MFA programs in the area churning out theater directors, writers and designers. It makes everyone up their game when you have healthy crops of theater practitioners entering the workforce. How about it, CU? Time to add more programming?

Joys: My staff completely rocks. I really enjoy working with them every day. And beyond that, I have found the artists here to be welcoming and wonderful. I have been regularly delighted to be in the room with them.

Triumphs: I have been very happy with the work that has been on our stages. I feel like a proud parent, whether I am helming the production or featuring the vision of a visiting director.

Audiences: Never underestimate them. They may not always know what they want, but they for sure know what they like! I respect and cherish the wonderful patrons who come to see shows here. The jump in our subscribership has reinforced the need to keep offering engaging programming, and I will continually endeavor to do so.

Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs runs February 21 to March 15 at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets range from $18 (seniors, military, students) to $37. Get yours at the Aurora Fox website.

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