Secrets of the Universe: How racism brought Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson together in friendship
When Helen R. Murray became the new Executive Producer at the Aurora Fox Arts Center two years ago, she said she wasn’t even remotely interested in telling the same old stories. And she has been proudly walking that tightrope ever since.
Murray has offered up award-winning Broadway musicals such as Caroline Or Change, incendiary social commentaries such as Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, and complete storytelling departures such as The Squirrels – a metaphorical rodent revolutionary epic. Hit or miss, Murray has made nothing but big choices.
Her latest and she hopes greatest is coming up next: Her first Aurora Fox world premiere. Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs is a musicalized adaptation of Marc Acito’s 2018 play that explores the unlikely but very real friendship between two 20th century greats: Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and legendary classical singer Marian Anderson. It stars Denver Center favorite Jordan Leigh and True West Award-winning singer Mary Louise Lee from February 21 through March 15.
Acito, originally from Bayonne, N.J., is a Colorado College graduate whose breakthrough novel was “How I Paid for College.” In 2015, he collaborated with George Takei (“Star Trek”) on the Broadway musical Allegiance. He’s now teaming with Heritage High School music teacher Andrew Fischer to turn Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs into an actual musical.
Anderson, one of the finest contraltos of her time, became the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Her performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 helped set the stage for the civil-rights era.
But it was her performance at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre in 1937 that led to her friendship with Einstein. Despite her fame, Anderson was denied access to a room at the Nassau Inn in the town of Princeton. Instead, she was invited to stay at a Princeton professor’s home. That professor turned out to be Einstein, an inconsistent champion of tolerance who famously called racism “a disease of white people.” Einstein went on to host Anderson on many occasions, and she stayed with him in the months before his death in 1955. That’s the start of Acito’s musical, which explores themes of science, faith, race, art and friendship.
“I find that how we tell stories, and who the stories are about can lead to an electric conversation between a theatre and its community,” Murray said. “Secrets may be about historical characters, but its themes and the way it is brought to life is ever so present. I can’t wait to share it.”
Murray collaborated with Acito several times during her time as head of the Hub Theatre in Washington D.C., including directing the Secrets of the Universe world premiere as a play in 2018.
“I distinctly remember Marc telling me about his idea for this play,” Murray said. “We were in the car on the way to the theatre, and he told me about a friendship between these two titanic figures from completely different worlds. Einstein was a scientist and agnostic. Anderson was an artist and a woman of deep faith. Yet theirs was a friendship that blossomed at a time before the world was broken apart by the Holocaust and world war.”
Acito has been traveling back and forth between New York and Colorado to work with Murray and Fischer for what he calls Secrets 2.0, which now incorporates spirituals and songs from Anderson’s repertoire.
“It has gone through a beautiful transformation,” Murray said.
Fischer, who teaches his Littleton high-schoolers Vocal Music and Music Theory, was intimidated by the prospect of teaming up with Acito at first. But that that feeling quickly gave way to excitement and inspiration.
“The relationship between Jewish music and black music has always been intriguing to me,” Fischer said. “So much black music in America was born out of oppression. When we look at the history of oppressed people, we often find common ground in the artistry of oppressed and persecuted groups. Plus, I’m a total ‘stan’ for Marian Anderson.” (That’s a slang word combining stalker and fan.)
The cast also includes Mark Rubald as both Anderson’s accompanist, Kosti Vehanen, and former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sharon Kay White plays both Einstein’s maid, Helen Dukas, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition to providing live music from a grand piano suspended above the stage, Fischer will portray plays seven characters in the play.
Murray believes this is the right play at the right time in America.
“I want to bring new work to the Fox so audiences can engage in that ephemeral exchange that is felt when the work speaks directly to how we are feeling in this very moment,” Murray said. “We don’t need to agree on everything to find common ground.”
This story was largely compiled from press materials provided by the Aurora Fox Arts Center.
Secrets of the Universe and Other Songs
- At the Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.
- By Marc Acito and Andrew Fischer
- Directed by Helen R. Murray
- February 21 through March 15
- Tickets available by calling 303-739-1970 or going to aurorafox.org
About Marc Acito
Marc Acito is an American playwright, librettist and humorist whose work focuses mainly on historical subjects. He is the head writer of Talking Statues, a project with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in which he creates mobile monologues for statues of historical figures. His play Birds of a Feather, directed by Helen R. Murray, won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play. His one-man play How I Paid for College starred Broadway’s Alex Brightman. His “Chasing Rainbows” tells the story of Judy Garland’s dramatic adolescence. He wrote the book for the Broadway musical Allegiance. In 2016, Acito had two world premieres: Chasing Rainbows, which tells the story of Judy Garland’s dramatic adolescence, and It’s a Secret, which features the music of the “Chinese King of Pop,” Jay Chou.
About Mary Louise Lee
Denver native Mary Louise Lee is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School who made her Denver Center debut at age 17 performing in Beehive at what is now the Garner Galleria Theatre. With more than 20 years of professional performing experience, she is known as both Denver’s First Lady, and Denver’s First Lady of Song. Lee won both a Henry Award and a True West Award for her performance in the Aurora Fox’s Caroline or Change. She has used her role as First Lady to introduce children and youth to the benefits of the performing arts through her foundation, Bringing Back the Arts.