Remember When: System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Playwright Steven Sater Staged the Rock Musical “Prometheus Bound” in Boston

Serj Tankian is best known for fronting Armenian-American metal band System of a Down, but his solo career has taken him to many other musical vistas. He has written orchestral works, created an acid-jazz album, and scored movies, a Netflix series, and a video game. Perhaps the coolest of all his solo endeavors is the rock musical Prometheus Bound, which he created with Spring Awakening playwright Steven Sater and was directed by Diane Paulus of Boston’s famed American Repertory Theater.

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In 2011 when the show was staged at A.R.T.’s Oberon venue, Sater told me he felt Prometheus was the first “prisoner of conscience.” Their contemporary take helped them update Aeschylus’ 2,500-year-old tale for the current day, and after each show they worked with Amnesty International to represent such real-life prisoners. The opening night’s performance was dedicated to internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was imprisoned three months earlier in his home country. He was finally released in February 2023.

Who Is Prometheus?

A quick recap of the tale of Prometheus: He was the Greek god who gave mortals the gift of fire and language and thus incurred the wrath of the vengeful Zeus, who in retribution chained him to a rock to face eternal torment from gods and mortals. The loftier beings sought to taunt him and try to break his will; the mortals more emphasized with his awful plight. There were some notable visitors for Prometheus. One was Io, a mortal woman whom Zeus raped then transformed into a cow and perennially tortured her with a stinging gadfly, and she wanted to obtain knowledge of her future. The Three Daughters of the Aether served up offer a Greek chorus of despair to the chained god who would not apologize to Zeus nor reveal the doomed fate that he knew would befall him.

Naturally, such heavy subject matter couldn’t be given a traditional musical theater approach. That would be disastrous. Thank the theater gods that Tankian and Sater took up the task themselves. Prometheus Bound came off as an energetic, edgy show that placed the audience in the middle of the action.

“The Dionysian Energy and Rebelliousness of a Rock Concert”

Rather than focusing everything on one main stage, Paulus created a sense of urgency and motion by blocking the action all around and within the attending throng. According to A.R.T.’s page for the show, the director’s goal was “immersing the audience in an environment that has the Dionysian energy and rebelliousness of a rock concert.” Three “ladders of the gods” and a moving stage representing Prometheus’ rock were wheeled around and within the audience. The Daughters of the Aether were perched on the ladders to preside over the audience as they interacted with Prometheus.

Having action going on in different parts of the room drew the audience’s attention in different directions, and that led to a more active and participatory feeling. The same effect was achieved with David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Loves Lie, the musical tale of the rise and fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, which played Broadway last year and featured a standing-room-only experience for theatergoers on the floor, with action and actors emerging from different locations. Prometheus Bound preceded that decade-old show’s concept by a couple of years, but the potent, well-received experience of Here Lies Love may have set the stage for a Broadway run for Prometheus Bound.

There hasn’t been a truly heavy rock show on the Great White Way other than the adaptation of Green Day’s American Idiot in 2010, and it’s time for that to happen again. Prometheus Bound featured a hard working band onstage, and the powerful score spanned many styles of music including hard rock, ambient drones, and acoustic, jazzy hip-hop. Such eclecticism is not surprising coming from Tankian. Given the show is only 75 minutes long, he and Sater crammed a lot into its running time.

The original cast included, among others, Gavin Creel, who had done Hair on Broadway and later won a Tony Award for Hello, Dolly!; Uzo Aduba, who went on to co-star in her Emmy Award-winning role of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and who was nominated for a Tony Award for Clyde’s; comedian Lea DeLaria, who played Carrie “Big Boo” Black on Orange is the New Black; and Jo Lampert, who appeared on Orange is the New Black, The Path, and Transparent: The Musicale Finale.

Director Diane Paulus has since taken her acclaimed A.R.T. productions like Pippin, Jagged Little Pill, and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 to Broadway with great success; she has scored six Tony Award nominations and won for Best Direction of a Musical for Pippin in 2013.

Prometheus Bound was well-received by outlets like the Boston Herald. In her review for the Boston Phoenix, Carolyn Clay wrote “Sater’s book and lyrics are both angry and elegant, driving home the parallels between divine and political tyranny.” In Variety’s review of the show, the tagline read: “Propelled by a lean script, cut-to-the-quick lyrics and an angst-filled score, this world preem hits the zeitgeist jackpot.”

Eye on New York

Tankian recently told American Songwriter he’s hopeful that the show can come to New York. Indeed, whether as an off-Broadway or Broadway show, it would make a strong impact with the right cast and right staging. A great Broadway venue would be at the August Wilson Theatre, a venue in the round where Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is currently playing. More and more rock and pop artists have had shows on Broadway lately, including Alicia Keys, Will Butler, and Sufjan Stevens.

While an official soundtrack was never recorded, Shirley Manson recorded “The Hunger”  just prior to the show’s March 2011 debut, and Tankian recorded and released two of the show’s songs on his 2012 album Harikiri, “Weave On” and “Tyrant’s Gratitude” (the latter of which appeared on the deluxe edition). Those existing tracks can whet people’s appetite for a show that will make a return at some point. Let’s hope it’s soon.

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Photo by Bryan Reesman

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