CAMBRIDGE - For all that it’s called “Futurity,’’ Brooklyn band the Lisps’ new rock musical, which will have its world premiere Friday at Oberon, is a look back to the Civil War. Presented by the American Repertory Theater, it’s a love story of sorts: Julian Munro meets Ada Lovelace and they find they have a lot in common. Julian is a Union soldier, a member of the Ohio 34th Infantry who, even as he’s smashing Confederate railroad ties in Virginia, dreams of becoming an inventor. Ada is an English mathematician who’s written about Charles Babbage’s mechanical general-purpose computer. Oh, and she’s also Lord Byron’s daughter.
Ada might seem an unlikely figment of head Lisp César Alvarez’s imagination, but in fact Lord Byron did have a daughter, Augusta Ada, who was a mathematician and who is sometimes considered the world’s first computer programmer. What’s not historical is Ada’s meeting with Julian - partly because Julian is a figment of Alvarez’s imagination, partly because Ada never visited America, and partly because she died in 1852, just 36 years old. But “Futurity’’ is a science-fiction musical as well as a rock musical, so who’s to say that Julian and Ada didn’t hook up in a parallel universe?
Anyway, Alvarez - who wrote the show’s music (with the Lisps) and lyrics, collaborated on its book, and plays Julian - has a plausible backstory as to how they might have gotten together in this universe, and he posits it during lunch break in the “Futurity’’ rehearsal space on Church Street in Harvard Square. The Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea did write some notes on Babbage’s engine, and Ada did translate them into English and add her own notes, which Alvarez says are “like three times as long as the original.’’ Julian’s father, Alvarez suggests, was a pharmacist or had some kind of connection to the sciences, and that enabled Julian to get hold of what Ada wrote, read it, and send her a letter.
Molly Rice, who wrote the musical’s book with Alvarez, adds, “How these two people connect is through a fascination with solving problems through mechanized intelligence. Ada is intrigued by Julian’s wild imagination. Underneath all that science was a poet. So he gives her a way to explore something that is impossible but maybe she could make it possible. And he needs her help because he is in the Civil War and he needs to create a machine that creates peace in order to save him and his colleagues and the world.’’
That machine is the steam brain, a fixture of the “Futurity’’ set. Devised by percussionist Eric Farber, production designer Emily Orling, and set and costume designer David Reynoso, it doubles as Farber’s drum kit and looks like the love child of Rube Goldberg and P.D.Q. Bach. “The idea behind the steam brain,’’ Alvarez explains, “is that Julian decides that thinking is really a kind of math. And that if you could do math that is complicated enough, eventually it could be at the level of our own consciousness. Essentially he’s talking about artificial intelligence. And he feels that all the problems that we as humans aren’t able to solve would be solved by this machine. It’s a classic utopian idea about technology.
“Onstage,’’ Alvarez continues, “the machine manifests itself as an imagined assemblage of everything he’s seen, everything he knows, everything he’s witnessed and is a part of. And what’s so fun about it is that the instrument that’s playing the music is also telling the story. So we like to think of the steam brain as a set piece, as an instrument, and also as a narrative device that grows and is built and is interacted with in the course of the show.’’
The construction of the steam brain, director Sarah Benson points out, occurs in conjunction with the buildup to the musical’s climactic military clash. “Julian is under pressure to complete the steam brain through this collaboration with Ada before the bloody battle that’s looming,’’ she says.
Does having a steam brain make “Futurity’’ a steampunk musical? Alvarez says no. “Steampunk has a very brassy, over-the-top, polished aesthetic about the past and futurizing the past, which this piece doesn’t share. Everything in this piece is corroded. There’s more purity about period in steampunk, and we’re really irreverent about that.’’
That fits with the show’s DIY aesthetic. In rehearsal, Julian as a soldier presents arms using his guitar instead of a rifle, and his letter to Ada goes trans-Atlantic via clothesline. The costumes, says Orling, “are actually more in keeping with the rock-band, Brooklyn, young-artist kind of vocabulary. We’re not doing a period piece; it’s not on the nose. So the soldiers don’t need to be in Civil War costumes, because it could be any war.
“The set,’’ Orling goes on, “is the same underlying idea. We wanted to make a space where stories can be told, and so it’s like a space in the imagination. There’s no actual battlefield or hill or tree or proper Victorian library. We have a world for Ada built out of basically just a giant chalkboard. She has a little table and a chair, and she has miles of calculations behind her. It’s like a head space.’’
Ada is played by Lisps singer Sammy Tunis. “My Ada is really funny,’’ Tunis says. “She’s sarcastic, a little bit. She’s easily excitable. She’s a romantic. The thing that’s so interesting about her is that she’s a brilliant mathematician but she also has this creative drive. She’s an eccentric. And then something she gets from her father, I think, is that she writes about mathematics and science so beautifully and so poetically. It’s such a huge part of who she is.’’
Like the steam brain, “Futurity’’ has been built over time. “I started working on it in 2008,’’ says Alvarez, “and we developed it sort of DIY in rock clubs for a couple of years, and then Molly came on board.’’
Rice first saw the show at Joe’s Pub, the Public Theater’s cabaret space. “I was on a date,’’ she explains. “And I said, ‘Oh my God! I think I want to work on that.’ It was a sort of magical New York moment.’’
Benson joined the team around the same time. “I’d actually heard some of the Lisps’ music,’’ she says, “and then I just kept hearing about them from different folks. And I first read the libretto, the lyrics, and I just fell in love with what the story was dealing with. I thought that the lyrics were amazing. And then César gave me the music when we first met, and I took it home and listened to it over and over again and just felt like this was incredible.’’
Those lyrics range from Julian’s “Prettiest girl that ever I saw/ stood on the banks of the Arkansas’’ to Ada’s “What’s the animating force from which intelligence emerges?/ Is it material in nature, or a spiritual conversion?’’ Alvarez describes the Lisps’ musical style as combining theater, vaudeville, folk, and “old-timey’’ American as well as contemporary rock, and he warns audiences not to expect musical-theater-type vocal cords: “We sing with the voices we speak in.’’
So there you have it: a DIY rock musical that just happens to concern itself with string theory and the possibility of a technological singularity. Alvarez has spoken of “music as the perfect metaphor for the way the universe is built.’’ Could it be, then, that our entire universe is just the vibrating string on some rock musician’s guitar? “Yes,’’ he says quietly. “Absolutely yes.’’
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.