If anyone believed in the power of freedom, it was Ayn Rand. In her best-selling novels, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand, an atheist Jewish immigrant from Russia, articulated an ideology of individualism that still holds sway in American political and economic life, particularly among conservatives whose faith in the free market is absolute.
Now Rand’s novella, “Anthem,” about a band of rebels struggling to extricate themselves from the grip of a totalitarian state, comes to the stage in a rollicking rock musical version. With music by composer Jonnie Rockwell, lyrics by Erik Ransom and book by Gary Morgenstein, “The Anthem” is set to stir a new generation of New Yorkers with its vision of liberty — or libertarianism — in action.
First conceived in the 1920s as a four-act stage play, likely while Rand was a student at the University of Leningrad, “Anthem” was finally published as a novella/prose poem in 1938 in England. While working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, Rand tried to interest Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille and half a dozen other filmmakers in turning “Anthem” into a movie; she suggested to DeMille that it be filmed in much the same way as DeMille’s 1923 silent film version of “The Ten Commandments.”
While it was never filmed, and proposals for turning it into an opera or ballet also came to naught, “Anthem” did become the basis of a 1950 radio play by a church in Los Angeles. Now the work is finally being staged by multiple artists; in addition to the rock musical, two straight play versions of “Anthem” have appeared Off-Broadway in New York in the last year or so — one by Jennifer Sandella in January of 2013 (also with rock music, but only in the background) and one by Jeff Britting last fall.
Directed by Rachel Klein (“Around the World in 80 Days”), “The Anthem” — which Rand called a “hymn to man’s ego” — stars Randy Jones (the former lead singer of the Village People) as Tiberias, the evil leader of a dystopian, late-22nd-century State that presides over a country that has been ruined by an environmental apocalypse.
Prometheus (Jason Gotay) bucks the system by choosing his own mate, contrary to the forced coupling organized by the regime. But by selecting the blonde warrior princess Athena (Ashley Kate Adams) to help him lead the rebellion, Prometheus incites the wrath of his prescribed mate, Hera (Remy Zaken), who betrays him to the leaders of the State.
Morgenstein is a television executive and prolific playwright. His works often deal with Jewish life; they include the novel “Loving Rabbi Thalia Kleinman” and the plays “Ponzi Man,” which premiered three years before the Bernard Madoff scandal broke, “Right on Target,” about a conservative black talk show host married to a liberal Jewish woman and “A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx,” about a dysfunctional blue-collar Jewish family ruled by an oppressive patriarch.
In an interview, Morgenstein told The Jewish Week that “The Anthem” is geared to entertain, not to preach. “I envisioned a hybrid of theater, performance and film,” he said, “with people flying.” The writer, who calls himself a “sci-fi fantasy geek,” pays homage in the script to “Hunger Games,” “Star Wars” and “Independence Day,” with a nod to “Robin Hood.”
Morgenstein took many liberties with Rand’s work, beginning with giving the characters the names of Greek gods rather than the identifiers used by Rand (such as Equality 7-2521). Then he “flipped it upside down and made it high-tech,” so that Athena rebels by pushing buttons and reprogramming the Grid, freeing the subjects from having their emotions constantly monitored. The annual mating ritual enforced by the State turns into both a heterosexual and homosexual orgy in hammocks. And three of the members of the rebel tribe fly on ropes and swings as they help to defeat the regime with the natural energy of the jungle.
“It’s about your sense of responsibility,” Morgenstein explained, “and how much you want to cede control to the government.” While Rand was strident in her ideology, he said that he has no desire to tell people what to think. “That would be heavy handed; it would defeat the premise of individuality.”
Rockwell wrote the score for “The Anthem” at the same time as she was working on a new musical adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Born in post-Communist Czechoslovakia (she is descended from the Czech composer and folklorist Leoš Janáček), Rockwell, who was born with perfect pitch, saved money from performing in four rock bands and went to medical school at Yale; she is now board certified in age management.
The composer perceives many connections between her medical work and the songs in “Anthem,” which include “The Grid,” “The Rebellion” and “Who Stands With Us.” In the latter, she noted, “people have to decide if they will come along into the new society or if they will stay with the Grid.” In the same way, in working with her patients, “I don’t want to be paternalistic. I can’t give the patient complete control, but I can guide him or her to make choices about taking medication, hormones and so on. Some patients can’t work under free will, while others can.”
Remy Zaken plays the jilted mate, Hera. While still a student in high school, she made her Broadway debut in “Spring Awakening.” Zaken grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Connecticut and graduated two years ago from Columbia University with a degree in psychology. She described “The Anthem” as “very pop rock, very modern. We have a lot of neon lights, sci-fi sound effects, glitz, glamor, glitter and Spandex.”
While she has chasidic cousins in Brooklyn, Zaken defines her own Jewish identity as more cultural than religious. “I like the freedom to practice Judaism however it feels to me,” she said. “That’s kind of the message of this show as well — you need to figure out if the ends justify the means.” No matter how noble your goals may be, she asked, “Do you need to sacrifice your ethics and morality in order to achieve them?”
Did Rand’s Jewishness affect her work? Many have speculated that Rand’s upbringing in Czarist Russia, where anti-Semitism was rife, had a profound effect on her thinking. In Andrew Heinze’s “Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century” (Princeton, 2006), the historian lists Rand, Betty Friedan, Ann Landers and other prominent Jewish women as “public advisers of wide influence.” But only Canadian journalist Jeff Walker, in “The Ayn Rand Cult” (Carus Publishing, 1999), has sought to put Rand’s ideas in an explicitly Jewish context; he finds Jewish influences in many aspects of her Objectivist philosophy, including its “life on Earth” orientation and prizing of material success.
Britting, who penned one of the recent plays about Rand, is the curator of the Ayn Rand Archives in Irvine, Calif. He recalled that audience members spoke eloquently in talkbacks about how his play reminded them of their own experiences of suffering during the Holocaust or in Communist Russia. One female spectator complained, asking him why he brought this “awful world” to the stage in the midst of our flourishing democracy. “She didn’t realize that it was a warning,” Britting said. “If people don‘t affirm the value of the individual, then the world presented by Rand might come to pass.”
“The Anthem” runs through July 6 at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre, 45 Bleecker St. It runs Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Mondays and Tuesdays at 7 p.m., with weekend matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $33-$99, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.ovationtix.com.