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Arts, Sports & Culture

'Current War' Musical Depicts Historic Struggle Between Edison And Westinghouse

Once upon a time, the concept of producing and distributing electricity for everyday household use was brand-new – so new that the best way to do it was not yet settled: Direct current or alternating current?

Krell and Mason pose during a rehearsal.
Heather Mull/Photo: Heather Mull Photography
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Quantum Theatre
Actors Daniel Krell (left) and Billy Mason pose during rehearsal.

The circa-1880s conflict between Thomas Edison (who swore by the former) and George Westinghouse (who favored the latter) has been called The War of the Currents, and it occasionally turned lurid: For instance, seeking to demonize AC as deadly dangerous, Edison took to electrocuting dogs and horses with it, and even backed creation of the first electric chair.

The struggle between the two famed inventors was dramatized in “The Current War,” a 2017 feature film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon. But the film’s screenwriter, Pittsburgh-area native Michael Mitnick, originally envisioned the story as, of all things, a musical. And about 14 years after he wrote it, that musical will premiere June 4 as possibly Pittsburgh’s biggest and most elaborate in-person stage production since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Current War's local hook

As staged by Quantum Theatre, “The Current War” leans heavily on its Pittsburgh connections. Though Westinghouse was born in upstate New York, Pittsburgh was where he founded iconic companies like Westinghouse Air Brake and Union Switch and Signal. He also lived here for decades, starting in 1871 – in a now-demolished estate on the 10 green acres that constitute Westinghouse Park, in North Point Breeze, the very site where Quantum is presenting its outdoor show under a big white tent. A couple scenes even take place at “Solitude,” the complex of residential and lab buildings where Westinghouse, also a pioneer in natural gas, sank several gas wells.

Mitnick, whose theatrical career began when he was a student at Fox Chapel Area High School, said such connections to his work thrill him. “Just thinking about it gives me chills,” said Mitnick, now a writer and theater artist living in Brooklyn.

The show’s cast of nine features Pittsburgh favorite Daniel Krell as a bitter, cynical Edison, and Greensburg native Billy Mason as the humble if wildly ambitious Westinghouse. The production, with its 1880s setting and occasionally carnivalesque feel, is directed by Broadway veteran Tomé Cousin, a longtime Pittsburgh resident making his Quantum debut.

“I think that was the draw to me, that it’s a local story, a Pittsburgh story, and that it’s happening here,” said Cousin. “I think it shows a way that progress and popularity and determination and science all mix together, which I think is very unusual for theater.”

Westinghouse v. Edison

Edison was one of Mitnick’s boyhood idols: An Apple “Think Different” poster featuring the inventor adorned his bedroom wall. But that idolization is not apparent from “Current War,” in which Edison is cast as the heavy.

“People often think of Thomas Edison as kind of avuncular,” said Mitnick. “They confuse him often with Benjamin Franklin … when really he was a ruthless businessman who would put his name on his employees’ patents. He would steal his competitors’ patents, and they would steal patents from him. He just wasn’t exactly the saint that people had in mind.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, let his employees keep the patents on their inventions, and as Gilded Age industrialists go, he is regarded by many as uniquely progressive and humane in his treatment of workers. If the Edison of “Current War” is a cunning manipulator of public opinion, Westinghouse is his press-shy opposite – an iconic figure who ordered all his personal papers and even photographs burned upon his death.

Mitnick was studying playwriting at the Yale School of Drama when he wrote the show’s book, music and lyrics – an unusual triple-threat feat in musical theater. It had to be a musical, he says today. “There was something about the sound of America, and the sound of these people with incredible ambition, that sang to me. It was larger than speeches, and it was larger than small conversations. It was about life, and it was also about magic.”

Mitnick means the magic of technological innovation and, more specifically, electricity. But other forces at play in “Current War” include Edison’s demagoguery, which comes wrapped in jingoism. His song prefacing the public electrocution of a farm animal begins, “I believe in the promise of America / I believe one should never live in fear. / But I believe a threat has come and here’s the source,” he sings, patting a generator. “So in sunny weather let’s all get together and Westinghouse this horse!”

With its period setting and references to Coney Island, circuses, and boxing matches, “Current War” provides a playground for set designer Tony Ferrieri and costume designer Karen June Gilmer. Large-scale puppets also figure, in some sequences involving animals. (Mitnick’s script also takes a bit of license in referencing the electrocution of a circus elephant named Topsy, which actually took place in 1903 – years after the current war ended – and without Edison’s direct involvement.)

In one set piece, two cynical newspaper reporters narrate the story of William Kemmler, the murderer from Buffalo, N.Y., who was the first to die in the electric chair Edison helped design. The scene features Cousin’s vibrant choreography and a pungent dark humor reminiscent of Kander & Ebbs’ “Chicago”: “Don’t worry, Kemmler, if you cook, at least you’ll go down in my record book!” sings the harmonizing chorus.

The music, meanwhile, ranges from that vaudeville-style number to tunes in the Irish folk tradition and melodic pieces in a more familiar musical-theater vein. Mitnick “really captures a certain flavor of early Americana vibe in the score,” said the show’s musical director, Douglas Levine, who also contributed some vocal arrangements, incidental music, and a new cello part. Levine, on keyboard, and Simon Cummings, of Cello Fury, will provide live accompaniment at each performance.

Quantum firsts

The challenges of mounting the show, however, were more than artistic. Like most other performing-arts groups in the country, Quantum had not staged a live, in-person production since before the pandemic began, in March 2020. (The group had scheduled an in-person outdoor show for August, but postponed it after the summer spike in COVID-19 cases.)

Because it had cast members of Actor’s Equity, Quantum was obligated to follow that union’s stringent COVID-19 protocols. The nationally based union required, for instance, that all cast and crew pass three COVID tests before they could even begin work. Rehearsals began May 4, with everyone double-masking, performers separated by large wheeled frames of plastic sheeting, and not yet permitted to sing. Instead, the actors spoke their lines in time to the music.

“It’s been a challenge, especially when someone is giving you a cue line upstage, and you’re behind two masks and a plastic screen, so you’re not sure if the cue was given,” said Mason.

However, things changed May 18, the day the whole cast became fully vaccinated. At rehearsal, the relief was palpable. “It was fun yesterday to hear the show for the first time and really hear it,” said Mason, on May 19. “We got to sing it, we got to act without masks.”

However, audiences for the show will have to wear masks, just one of several COVID-19 precautions Quantum is taking. While what’s on stage will look and sound normal, audiences will sit on wooden risers in distanced pods of two, three or four patrons each. And the tent will host 76 patrons tops – about half what Quantum, which has staged dozens of outdoor shows over the years, would usually welcome to a space this size, says executive director Stewart Urist.

“It’s part of the experience,” said Urist. “I feel like we’re guaranteeing to people we’re going to be looking out for them.”

The big tent was erected in mid-April in a corner of Westinghouse Park just across North Murtland Street from a line of rowhouses, and not far from the park’s playground equipment. Quantum said it worked closely with neighbors and groups including the Westinghouse Park 2nd Century Coalition and the Point Breeze North Development Corporation.

During rehearsal, the tent’s flaps were raised to improve air circulation, as they will be for the performances. On May 19, kids and dog-walkers scooted past the tent as Cousin and the cast ran scenes and worked out blocking. Families picnicked nearby, and an ice-cream truck passing on North Murtland added to the ad hoc soundtrack.

The neighborhood feel is especially significant for Mason, whose parents grew up nearby and attended Westinghouse High School decades ago. “I even have cousins that live right down McPherson [Boulevard],” he said.

“The Current War” is also notable for its diverse casting. While all the historical characters portrayed in the show were white, actors of color play George Westinghouse, Marguerite Westinghouse and other roles. Along with Mason, those performers include Melessie Clark, Jerreme Rodriguez and Tru Verret Fleming. Others in the cast include Quinn Patrick Shannon, Connor McCanlus, Alex Noble, and Drew Leigh Williams.

In the age of “Hamilton,” diverse casting of historical figures is not unusual. But neither is it standard practice.

“The idea of casting these characters diversely across the board is a brave step for Quantum Theatre to take,” said Cousin, an outspoken advocate of diverse casting. “Now is the time for us as a community to open up to that idea.”

“Making this cast diverse speaks both now to where we are as a country when it comes to how we’re rethinking theater and rethinking the casting of theater, but I also think it speaks to how any story can be told from any point of view,” said Mason.

For more information on "The Current War," see Quantum's web page.