Entertainment Central Pittsburgh – Strange spirits are being summoned in Point Breeze North. When dusk descends over the grassy quadrangle called Westinghouse Park, where George Westinghouse’s mansion once stood, ghosts may drift across the lawn. And even stranger doings are afoot under the tent where Quantum Theatre is staging the musical The Current War (through June 27).
This world premiere, which marks Quantum’s return to live performance, is an unusual show to begin with. Rarely do we get a musical about the origins of electrical infrastructure. Yet that’s what writer-composer Michael Mitnick has given us. And though The Current War is grounded in historical fact—the actual techno-economic “war,” in the late 19th century, to decide whether America’s future electric grids would run on direct or alternating current—the show might best be appreciated with a bit of background from the realm of fantasy literature.
Tales of Good and Evil
Many fantasy tales make a distinction between two kinds of heroes. There are wizards who can bend the forces of nature to their will, and there are kings who conquer and rule. Thus, in British legend, we find Merlin and Arthur. In The Lord of the Rings, we have the good wizard Gandalf and the righteous warrior-king Aragorn.
Convention says that anyone who tries to combine the two powers—to be a wizard and also a ruler—becomes evil, because that person aspires to be God, which cannot be. Such was the fate of the dark lord Sauron in the Rings trilogy, and the wicked Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. They got what they deserved.
But what happens in real life? Is it possible to aspire to both wizardry and earthly dominion … and still be a good guy? During the late 1800s, in countries like ours that were rapidly industrializing, a breed of men arose who indeed aspired to both. They were inventor-entrepreneurs: arch-geeks who created seemingly magical devices, and who also founded great commercial companies to propagate their creations throughout the land.
Thomas Edison was one. A prolific inventor dubbed “the wizard of Menlo Park,” he aimed to build an electrical empire of cities and towns using his direct-current systems. George Westinghouse was another. The head of a Pittsburgh-based empire for manufacturing his railroad inventions, he jumped into the emerging electric industry as a champion of AC.
Spoiler alert! As you may know, the lines coming into your home today carry AC. Which means the good guy won. And that is really the theme at the heart of The Current War. What author Mitnick has written is a musical morality play…