Discovering liturgy in the laboratory

Discovering liturgy in the laboratory

Jewish prayers brought off-Broadway’s ‘Frankenstein’ to life

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The Creature, played by Erick Sanchez-Canahaute, attacks Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by Jon Rose, in “Frankenstein.” Photo by Adam Smith Jr. 
The Creature, played by Erick Sanchez-Canahaute, attacks Dr. Victor Frankenstein, played by Jon Rose, in “Frankenstein.” Photo by Adam Smith Jr. 

As a scientist, Dr. Eric Sirota of Flemington was drawn to questions about scientific responsibility raised in Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein.” The story’s main character, Victor Frankenstein, brings a Creature to life in his laboratory. 

“Victor crossed the line from trying to understand nature to trying to control her,” Sirota said about the 19th-century novel. “I’m still trying to understand nature. That’s what scientists do.”

By day Sirota studies the physical properties of organic molecules. He earned a doctorate from Harvard University and is a successful physicist at ExxonMobil’s Corporate Strategic Research division in Clinton.

By night, he’s a composer who relishes seeing the fruits of his creative efforts, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, come alive. Since October 2017, his off-Broadway production of “Frankenstein” has played at the St. Luke’s Theater in Manhattan every Monday night in an open run. Sirota wrote the book, music, and most of the lyrics. 

Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, Sirota is not about to abandon his creation. He called his cast “amazingly talented,” and said, “It’s humbling to have them invest that much effort into my words and my music.”

While honoring much of Shelley’s original material, the subject of religion is one area where Sirota strays; he wrote religion, lyrically and musically, into the work.

Over hot tea on a very cold Sunday afternoon in mid-January, before heading off to a rehearsal, Sirota spoke with NJJN about his middle-aged foray into musical theater and how his lifelong commitment to Judaism finds its way into his compositions. 

He compares watching the stage manager feeding lines to actors during rehearsals as akin to the Torah service. “It’s like the gabbai reading along during a Torah reading and correcting any mistakes.” 

He finds this approach somewhat startling. “Actors are taught that the words are sacrosanct,” he said. “But if the actors think another word would work better, I’d like to hear it. I’m not Shakespeare,” he said. 

Perhaps that comes from feeling like a neophyte in the theater world. He took a few music classes in college, but doesn’t have the rigorous training as he does in physics.

“I’m always listening and learning,” he said. “I work with all these young kids. Some are still in school; they all have more experience than I do.” 

Sirota’s musical background is mostly in piano and composition. While at Brown University, the physics student enjoyed courses in the music department. He said his classmates told him his music, often in minor keys, always sounded like Jewish folk songs.

The scientist in him wanted to understand all the elements involved in eliciting that sound. He found a text on Jewish harmony while taking an independent study course on Jewish music of Eastern Europe. And now he can be more deliberate about harnessing the tunes that come so naturally to him. 

Religion, in the guise of synagogue music, creeps into Sirota’s work. “It’s very much a part of me,” he said. He calls his childhood cantor, Joseph Eidelson of East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, one of his greatest musical influences. 

So, it is not surprising to find that the musical modes of Jewish liturgy are imbued in the score of “Frankenstein.” 

There’s a cadence in “Victor’s Lament,” at the end of the prologue, that Sirota acknowledged comes right from the repetition of the Amidah prayer for holidays, a line he can still hear Eidelson chanting. “It’s how I felt it should sound,” Sirota said.

There are times during the play when characters sing to themselves and Sirota envisions them talking to God. The Creature in Sirota’s imagination reads the Bible, replacing “Paradise Lost” in Shelley’s version. 

Sirota’s characters use the language of prayer — even Victor Frankenstein. “He calls out to God for help,” Sirota said about the character who envisions himself as a mighty creator. “At the end when he realizes he’s made a mess of things, when he tries to destroy the records of what he did, he references God.” 

Getting Frankenstein into production has taken Sirota’s entire adult life. He started in 1981 when saw the eponymous play on Broadway that closed on opening night after dreary reviews. But it inspired him to reread the novel. “I heard it being sung in my head as a musical,” he said. He finished a draft in the early 1990s before setting music aside to raise his two children, now both in college, in Flemington with his wife, Cara London. 

“Music was sort of always there for me,” he said. “A professor once told me it’s something you can come back to, and I took that seriously.”

And that’s what happened. After a decade-long break, he composed a new tune for Anim Zemirot, a prayer often sung at the end of Shabbat morning services; he wrote music for the “Prayer for Our Congregation” found in the Conservative movement’s “Siddur Sim Shalom”; and he composed an oratorio performed at the 2006 dedication of the new building of Flemington Jewish Center, where Sirota and his family are members. 

His “Frankenstein” had its first production as “Day of Wrath” at the 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival. 

Sirota had a relationship with a producer who knew how to work on a small budget; and as a successful middle-aged scientist, he didn’t need the help of GoFundMe or the other avenues often pursued by young playwrights. In 2017 “Frankenstein” opened in time for Halloween and after a break between Christmas and New Year’s, and a few cast changes, the show is performed every Monday evening at 7 p.m. 

And like everyone in show business, on this Sunday, Sirota has a case of the jitters. But you can also see that thrill register on his face as he thinks about heading off to the afternoon rehearsal. He remains hopeful that the play will be picked up by other theaters and he watches for good reviews. And of course, Tuesday morning, after every show, it’s always back to the lab for Sirota.

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