‘Nikola Tesla’ musical brings the forgotten genius ‘to light’

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Nikola Tesla has been dogging Nikko Benson for much of his life, the playwright says.

The Serbian-American inventor born in 1856, is the subject of Mr. Benson’s new musical Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat — co-written with books and lyrics by Benjamin Halstead. The electronica-pop-driven show tells the story of the rivalry between Tesla, who invented alternating current electricity, the radio and much more, and his better-known contemporary Thomas Edison.

The show “drops” later this week, opening the Adirondack Theatre Festival’s 23rd season with its first fully staged production on Wednesday, June 21.

Thursday, June 22, is the official opening night, followed by a reception. See below for Box office and ticket info.

Adirondack Theatre Festival opens with banks of light — On Monday, crew members were installing hundreds of lights on the Wood Theater stage in Glens Falls. The lights make up the bulk of the set design for Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat, a new electronica-pop musical inspired by inventor Nikola Tesla and his rivalry with Thomas Edison. Chronicle photos/Cathy DeDe

“Fully staged” is an understatement, ATF director Chad Rabinovitz asserts. “It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” with a cast of 12, a set design composed of hundreds of lights, massive sound design — “it’s huge,” Mr. Rabinovitz says.

Why write this story? Mr. Benson tells The Chronicle, “My godfather wrote a play about Tesla. I’m sort of named after him. My Social Studies teacher was obsessed with him.”

He and Mr. Halstead, writing partners in their final year of grad school at NYU, researched Tesla and found, Mr. Benson said, “It’s an overwhelmingly dramatic story.”

That was four years ago; they’ve since graduated and ditched the original, traditional musical they wrote for school after they had the brilliant thought: What’s better for a story about the inventors of modern electricity than to tell the story with electronic-techno pop music.

“The birth of electricity paired with electronic music,” Mr. Pailet explains.

“Tesla was edgy for his time,” Mr. Benson says. “He was sort of the first mad scientist. He would run electricity through his own body to show how safe it was.”

Why don’t we know his name better?

‘Tesla’ director Marshall Pailet and co-writer Nikko Benson. Nikko’s writing partner Benjamin Halstead was working at the Tony Awards on Monday when the interview took place.

“History is a book written by the winners,” Tesla director Marshall Pailet offers.

Tesla was unusual, anachronistic, even, Mr. Pailet says. And Edison is the villain of their story, Mr. Benson says.

If Edison invented the light bulb, Tesla invented fluorescent and neon lights. Edison, the phonograph; Tesla, the radio. Edison had Tesla with moving pictures, but Tesla dreamed of harnessing the power of the sun “to provide infinite wireless power to everyone in the world”

They call it “a rescue story, bringing the story of Nikola Tesla to light.”

Mr. Benson says, “The more we got excited about using that music as a lens, we let go: The characters are portrayed not literally but for the feel of the part,” toying with gender, time period and age, for example.

J.P. Morgan is played by a young woman — SPUN lead rocker Brook Wood, in fact, in leather pants and high heels. Edison is “a belting diva,” they say.

‘Tesla!’ — Isaac Powell, pictured in rehearsals at the Wood Theater, has the title role. Photo provided

It rings true: Edison was a master at self-branding, they say, as well. “He’d be the one with 10 billion Instagram followers,” Mr. Pailet suggests.

Tesla was more about creating something that would help people, but he was not a “people person.” He died penniless, in fact, in a New York City hotel.

Still, they say, the show is fun, first — and family appropriate, they add.

Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat is at the Wood Theater in downtown Glens Falls, June 21 to July 1. Tix: $34 to $45. Box office: 480-4878, or woodtheater.org.

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