In 1997, The Foundry Theatre in New York City commissioned writer Rinde Eckert to create a musical based on Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
What started as a concept soon became a story and eventually developed into a script. The final product, “And God Created Great Whales,” opened Wednesday and runs through Friday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The musical dramedy was workshopped at P.S. 122, a performance space in New York dedicated to artists who push the boundaries in live performance — and Eckert’s avant-garde style fit the bill.
In June of 2000, “Whales” premiered as a Foundry Theatre production. Since then, the show has played in cities all across the nation and earned an OBIE (Off-Broadway Theater) award as well as a Drama Desk nomination.
In the 15 year span since its creation, Eckert — whose accolades also include writer, composer, performer, director and librettist — says “Whales” has also evolved in ways he never saw coming.
“We have performed it so many times, we understand it in a way we couldn’t have seen in the beginning,” he says.
“It’s one of those pieces that you can keep discovering,” adds actress Nora Cole.
The two-person show tells the story of Nathan (Eckert), a piano composer losing his memory due to a degenerative disease. Before his memory leaves him completely, Nathan is determined to write a final opus — an opera based on “Moby-Dick.”
In an attempt to combat his memory loss, Nathan resorts to recording instructions for himself on a tape recorder he keeps around his neck. He also relies on the help of an imaginary muse, Olivia (Cole) who guides him through the opera, even taking on the roles of characters like Ishmael, Starbuck and Captain Ahab.
In the early stages of production, not long after Cole was chose for the role of Olivia, she, Eckert — who also is the show’s creator and composer — a director and a stage manager met every day for six weeks, working through pages of the script that would eventually become “Whales.”
“I thought initially [Nathan] would be struggling with this white piano and that would be his Moby-Dick,” Eckert says. “But that turned out not to be the direction to go.”
“We just experimented and explored and ended up with what we ended up with,” Cole says.
Cole adds that after the initial six weeks of developing the script, “it really didn’t change that much.”
For Cole, a seasoned actress and director, the avant-garde approach to the show was something she’d never experienced before. But for Rinde, the style was familiar. As was the music.
The son of two opera singers, Eckert says “Whales” was like a homecoming for him.
“In a way, I got to tackle opera in a very clear way,” he says. “This was the first show where I came back to the vernacular of the opera.”
What Eckert says started out as a play about loss and finding purpose, has transformed into a story about relationships and even love.
“[Nathan and Olivia’s] problematic love affair is what people come away with,” Eckert says. “The nature of our lives is essentially in the relationships we’ve had.”
“The muse realizes that when he goes, she goes,” Cole adds. “She goes and still commits to the task.”
Looking back on the evolution of “Whales,” Cole and Eckert say not only have the show’s themes developed, but so have they.
“It’s interesting to feel what it’s like 10 years later,” Cole says. “What this piece feels like in my voice and in my body and with our interaction with each other.”
“It got incredibly involved in a wonderful way,” Eckert adds.