‘Hephaestus’ composer relives long process from page to stage

Play about Greek god of fire opens this week
‘Hephaestus’ composer relives long process from page to stage
Photo by Meghan Randolph ​​​​​
The pantheon of Greek gods gang up on Caleb Mathura’s Hephaestus.

Like a long and winding hike up the side of Mount Olympus, “Hephaestus” — the first original musical produced by Music Theatre of Madison — has traveled a long way from page to stage.

Sure, that’s true of most new musicals. The difference here is that Madison audiences have experienced and, most importantly, significantly influenced the development the production.

Last summer, MTM hosted a staged workshop of composer Nathan Fosbinder’s musical about the oft-forgotten Greek god of fire and his troublesome relationship with his family. MTM audiences got a chance to weigh in on what they liked and didn’t like, from the characters to the songs, sets and costume designs.

Now, as the debut of the finished product inches closer — the show officially opens Friday, Aug. 16 at the Play Circle in Memorial Union — we asked Fosbinder to review his creative journey and reflect on some of the milestones he passed along the way to tell the story of one of the most misunderstood gods of all.

The Inspiration

Fosbinder was nearing the end of his senior year at the Boston Conservatory when he first posted “Her Song,” a longing, piano-based number he had composed to meet the requirements of his program’s songwriting emphasis, on Facebook. It caught the attention of MTM executive director Meghan Randolph.

“She emailed me and was like, ‘Is that from a show? Is there more? If this is from a show, we’ll do it,'” Fosbinder recalls Randolph saying.

It wasn’t from a show — at least not yet. But MTM’s interest helped grease the wheels toward development of a show.

Randolph had known Fosbinder since casting him, when he was still a teenager, in MTM’s production of “Sound of Music” — yes, the company that specializes in weird stuff once staged one of the most whitebread musicals of all time. So Randolph had been following Fosbinder’s trajectory for a while.

Hitting Deadlines

“Hephaestus” was on a strict two-year cycle with MTM: A workshop production in 2018 and a full performance in 2019.

Like so many creative types, Fosbinder procrastinated. Two weeks before the deadline to produce a completed score for the workshop, he was still composing.

“I called all my intimidating friends to come over and help me hone my material,” Fosbinder recalls.

They helped him hone his core concept — the notion, as he puts it, that “not all gods stay gods forever.” Fosbinder realized that he had been approaching his storytelling by going through the familiar beats about the Greek gods that everyone already knew. He decided to apply the same logic to Hephaestus.

“Here’s what I knew,” he says. “Hephaestus was the only god with a physical impediment. He’s the only god to be thrown from Mount Olympus, and he’s the only one to come back.”

Those key facts helped frame the story that made it into the final version of the show.

Get Me Rewrite

When asked about how scenes and songs shifted during the creative process, Fosbinder laughs. “My process is all rewriting,” he says.

He points to “Siren’s Song,” a number that finds Hermes, the messenger of the gods, juggling love letters written to Aphrodite, Hephaestus’s soon-to-be bride. Fosbinder knew the song needed some help.

“It had bad lyrics,” he laughs. “So I took it out and made it much darker. Now the suitors of Aphrodite have much darker desires. Their want for Aphrodite is no longer pure.”

Processing Feedback

Not everybody likes staged readings. Luckily, Fosbinder isn’t everybody.

“A lot of people in New York try to get around them,” he says. “Getting to hear people say out loud what they think of your work can be daunting.”

But Fosbinder finds the process valuable.

For instance, in the performance Fosbinder workshopped last year, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, was basically deity window dressing.

“One of the audience members told me, ‘Hey, if you’re going to use her, use her,'” Fosbinder says. As a result, there’s now a six-minute song at the top of the show that features Demeter. It’s about the relationship between mothers and daughters. Another audience member suggested he write a song for Athena. Now she, too, has more singing opportunities.

The suggestions also helped Fosbinder hone the show’s plot.

“With Hephaestus, there’s no timeline on him,” he says. “In the myths, he helps Athena spring out of Zeus’s skull, but that’s kind of it. Creating anything linear is hard.”

And Demeter wasn’t the only deity to get a do-over. In earlier versions of the show, Ares, Hephaestus’s primary romantic rival for the hand of Aphrodite, was a bad guy from the get-go. Fosbinder decided to make the story more nuanced. In the final version, the two gods actually begin the story as friends.

“We know how everyone ends up, but how do we get them there?” Fosbinder says. “What if we start Ares in a place where he picks flowers for Hephaestus instead of antagonizing him?”

We’ll see this week when “Hephaestus” opens at the Memorial Union Play Circle.

Finally Letting Go

Fosbinder says he looks forward to seeing his work of the last three years finally come together. If “Hephaestus” resonates with audiences, Fosbinder has dreams of it someday finding a home off-Broadway in New York City. Or, even better, as a cast recording. Fosbinder is encouraged by the fact that his show is backed by a National Alliance for Musical Theatre grant, something Randolph worked hard to get.

“This is where ‘Hamilton’ started,” Fosbinder says. “Now that I’ve had a presentation, it’ll be easier for me to get more work.”

“Hephaestus” runs August 16-24 in the Memorial Union Play Circle. For ticket information, click here.

Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.