Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 book The Wind in the Willows has seen many adaptations, from cartoons to musicals – one of which is running on London’s West End through January – and has attracted interpreters from playwright Alan Bennett to electronica DJ Paul Oakenfold.
So when composer Collin Simon and his lyricist partner Liz Muller found themselves inspired by the century-old tale of Mr. Toad and his animal friends, they felt free to take it somewhere the story had never gone before: Steampunk.
The resulting show, Columbia: The Life and Death of Rospo D. Oro, which opens tonight at the Beckett Theater on Theatre Row, uses the original story as a jumping off point for stylistic liberties that would perhaps confound Grahame – or, perhaps, given steampunk’s future-past stylings, be quite familiar.
Simon, who with Muller has created steampunk versions of Macbeth and other plays, says that the connection is not as tenuous, or even as modern, as one might think.
“The show is about a guy who loves machines, which is Mr. Toad,” says Simon, sitting in a barren dressing room at the theater the other day. “He’s obsessed.”
Simon notes that the name Rospo means toad in Italian, and D. Oro is an alteration of d’oro, or gold, making the main character something like Mr. Golden Toad.
That may sound like a stretch, but as Simon says, anyone who knows the original story will recognize the character, as well as the plot, which they keep to until about halfway through, when they go someplace different.
Thematically, Simon, who in addition to writing the music wrote the book, takes the Mr. Toad/Rospo in a direction implicit in the original, but with a very contemporary twist.
“You eventually realize, as you’re reading the book, that Rospo is an addict,” he says. “He is addicted to these machines, and his friends are trying to get him to stop because he’s a danger to himself and to others.”
As in the original book, Toad/Rospo actually does end up in jail, but Simon won’t say more than that.
As for the steampunk style – a postmodern jumble of styles that combine elements of the pre-Industrial age with more recent attitudinal, D.I.Y. punk aesthetics – works perfectly with both Rospo’s fixations/addictions and the requirements of a small theater company, says Simon, whose long hair and beard give him a look closer to classic metalhead than steampunk.
“Steampunk is like 1940s future, what they thought the future would be like then,” he says. That jury-rigged look is, he adds, “awesome for a theater company on a shoestring budget, because we can do whatever we want to; we don’t have to worry about whether something is historically accurate. It’s this fantasy world of future-past.”
The same can be said of Simon’s music, which doesn’t necessarily adhere to any overt steampunk style, but is more cinematic, synthesizer-based, and perhaps a big jury-rigged itself.
“It’s very cinematic, very classical orchestral sound, with a more modern rhythm section,” he says.
Shoe-string in the extreme, the two co-creators share many duties on the show: In addition to writing the lyrics, Muller is the show’s director and costume designer, and she even performs in the show.
As for the jury-rigged show’s ultimate point, Simon gets a little vague, adding that the title name Columbia comes from the classic mythical figure representing Manifest Destiny and its meanings in American culture.
“It’s addiction, it’s destiny, it’s relationships…which goes with destiny and addiction,” he says. “It’s almost a character study, how people fall in love, or not, and it’s tragic in some ways. It’s about a group of people who are blown apart by Rospo’s addiction.”
Having not seen the show, or heard the music with the lyrics attached, I am still nearly as in the dark as anyone. But at the very least, Columbia: The Life and Death of Rospo D. Oro sounds like an ambitious new take on a much-loved children’s book we thought we knew.
Columbia: The Life and Death of Rospo D. Oro opens January 9, 2014, at the Samuel Beckett Theater on Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd Street. Tickets are available on the show’s website. The show will run through Jan. 25.