Interview: Writers Peter Kellogg and Stephen Weiner Explore The Odyssey Through Penelope's Eyes
Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written is currently running at the York Theatre Company.
Greek classics are no stranger to reinterpretation. On the contrary, the similarities between themes in ancient Greek literature and modern-day society renders the genre ripe for exploration. Writers Peter Kellogg and Stephen Weiner are among the latest creatives to do so with their upcoming musical comedy, Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written at the York Theatre Company.
This modern take on Odysseus's journey imagines a world where The Odyssey was written by his wife, Penelope, as she loyally awaits his return from the Trojan War. To stave off a troupe of relentless suitors, she writes a series of letters from Odysseus' perspective and begins to question how fulfilling her commitment to her husband truly is.
TheaterMania spoke to Kellogg and Weiner about adapting this classic of world literature and giving it a new twist.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You've done multiple theatrical adaptations of classics. What draws you to these older stories?
Peter Kellogg: We like classic stories because we can take an old idea and give a new twist that makes it interesting and current. I was an English major, so I read all these books, and they were in my head, so I think that's why I was drawn to them.
Stephen Weiner: Some of it is obviously the source material that draws you in, and you can reinvent things and imagine them your own way. But at the same time, getting rights for properties is really, really expensive and difficult, especially when you're trying to adapt a film these days. Public domain and original ideas are always the better way to go just from an expedient point of view.
Greek classics have always been ripe for reinterpretation. What was the impetus for creating Penelope?
Peter: The original impetus was that there are so many Cinderella musicals now; you know these feisty, feminist Cinderellas. I was thinking, "Penelope is the paragon of the 'faithful wife,' who stays at home and waits for her husband, so wouldn't it be fun to turn that idea on its head?"
The other thing that I find interesting is that all the Disney heroines are all young girls, unmarried and looking to find themselves, and this is about a woman in her late-30s, married, and still finding herself, and I thought that was a fresh take.
Stephen: When Pete mentioned the idea to me, I immediately got it and loved it, and we began to explore it pretty quickly. The music came very easily and it's a wide range of different styles from contemporary to classic golden age stuff. Everybody kind of knows something about The Odyssey. I think what Pete's done in a lovely way is, through the telling of the story and Penelope making up in her mind the adventures as she waits for her husband, we learn about The Odyssey in a contemporary way, so it's really great.
You have consistently shown that you're well-versed with writing musical comedies. But throughout this piece, Penelope's circumstances also illicit a sense of dread due to how apathetic her suitors are. Was there a point during the writing process where you were you worried that the content might unintentionally make light of the subject?
Peter: I don't think so, because we make the suitors ludicrous. I think what amazingly worked well is that Penelope and Odysseus are very real and the other people around them are just silly, yet you totally buy into their story. Part of it is the people we have playing the part; Britney Nicole Simpson is just fabulous as Penelope. What a voice. I think we were concerned that she has to sing a certain amount, but she handles everything beautifully.
Stephen: I would agree. It's a great role for a musical-theater actor, but she has a lot to sing and do in this show. Hopefully she gets a lot of vocal rest between performances, but she's so wonderful. Not only is she a fantastic actress, but her voice is to die for. As is our Odysseus, Ben Jacoby. He is a very, very gifted actor and gorgeous singer. So, we're really blessed. All of our cast is musically adept.
But to your point, dramaturgically, I agree with Pete that there's enough that you're laughing, but when Britney sings "I Want the Man That I Married," you're with her. You really feel her pining and her longing for her husband. What's really great is that you don't know what's going to happen. When Odysseus comes back there's no guarantee that it's going to be a happy ending. Like any modern couple they have to work out their issues.
Peter: You know he's been making love to Circe for seven years and Penelope welcomes him with open arms and there's no "how could you do this to me," which was interesting. A modern sensibility gives you a deeper way to play with that.
You spoke earlier about Penelope being a model wife who expects Odysseus to reciprocate her loyalty in her absence. Thinking about the expectations in these kinds of social roles, I was wondering if current events in our society influenced how you told the story?
Peter: That kind of thing can happen either consciously or unconsciously. I wrote Desperate Measures as a comedy, and all of a sudden it became about Donald Trump because the governor was just the same as Donald Trump. This one, we wrote it to be a comedy and it suddenly has more relevance – there's a song called "Mills of the Gods" [about a proverb regarding divine justice]; the mills of the gods grind slowly but they grind exceedingly small. You want justice to happen eventually. You want to know that the war in Ukraine and the people responsible for it are going to get their due justice at some point and that's almost a comforting thought today, the relevancy of that song.
Stephen: The musicals that excite me the most are the ones where you really see transformation of the characters. And I think for all of our characters, everybody changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not for the better, but that's what's wonderful: to start with somebody in Act 1 and just watch that arc. I think that's why audiences stay in their seat; they want to know what happens. They get invested in that character and want to see that journey and see the kind of transformation. On an unconscious level, that's why it was so easy for me to write because I was able to write music that captured them in different phases and stages of where they were in their journey, and that's the mark of a strong story. That's what makes musicals a unique art form, to watch that kind of transformation in song, dance, and story.