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‘Gatsby’ arrives at the ART, driven by a powerhouse creative team

"Gatsby" director Rachel Chavkin (left) and the musical's book writer, Martyna Majok, pose for a portrait at the Loeb Drama Center, where the show will receive its world premiere beginning Sunday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” may be a famously slender novel, but its 200 pages contain multitudes. With the rights to this landmark of American literature now in the public domain, adaptations abound, and its themes and ideas are rich and elastic enough to accommodate a slew of interpretations. The current Broadway version, “The Great Gatsby,” leans into Jazz Age glamour and romantic yearning; last year’s immersive adaptation at a New York City hotel offered a dazzling feast for the senses; and the Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz,” a word-for-word rendition of the novel that returns to New York’s Public Theater in the fall, finds a reader inside a drab office being seduced by Fitzgerald’s evocative prose.

Now comes American Repertory Theater’s “Gatsby,” whose pre-Broadway world premiere bows at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge Sunday through Aug. 3. This musical adaptation digs into the class issues and melancholic heart of the novel, the “hopeless but determined” quest to achieve the American Dream. The production, with its starry creative team, features a score by English gothic-pop star Florence Welch (Florence + The Machine) and Grammy-winning producer and singer Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman), a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok (“Cost of Living”), direction by Tony winner Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”), and choreography by another Tony winner, Sonya Tayeh (“Moulin Rouge!”).

Majok first read the novel in high school, and it didn’t make much of an impact. Her opinion changed dramatically when she was asked to adapt it into a musical and she read it again.

She recalls listening to the audiobook while walking through the Cloisters museum in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park early in the pandemic and arriving at the vivid, heart-rending final passage of the novel — ”So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” — as tears welled up.


“It was especially moving to be reading this book in the pandemic in my 30s and questioning a lot of the choices I’d made,” Majok recalls. “It’s the most hopeful but clear-eyed portrait of the American mentality and the American spirit I’ve ever encountered.”

Her script aims to capture Fitzgerald’s ambivalence about the American Dream — “the gorgeous, complicated duality of this country, where the dream itself is so beautiful and gorgeous and the pursuit of it is valiant and worthwhile and gives our lives a sense of meaning, but the ways in which we’ve tried to attain it have often led to destruction and devastation. We ruin ourselves in the pursuit of it.”

Chavkin says this “Gatsby” is engaging with the book’s pointed critique of a class-based society. “Everyone has this idea that the novel is about the decadence and debauchery of the 1920s. But, no, the novel is critiquing that. Fitzgerald himself always felt out of place, like he was the poor kid at Princeton and an outsider to the American Dream. The novel is about both the beauty — and the pain — of that aspiration.”

A nouveau-riche fabulist, the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (Isaac Powell) is the quintessential self-made man (never mind that his wealth may have been amassed in nefarious ways). He hosts wild parties at his mansion, but his heart (and his mind) remain with his lost love, Daisy (Charlotte MacInnes). Their courtship was severed when he was sent to war in Europe. Her family saw Gatsby as below their lofty old-money station, and the debutante wound up marrying brutish blowhard Tom Buchanan (Cory Jeacoma). Every night, a still-smitten Gatsby stares across the bay to the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock, hoping that she’ll show up at one of his lavish soirees and he’ll win her back.


When Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway (Ben Levi Ross), a Midwestern transplant who works as a bond salesman in the city, moves into the cottage next door, Gatsby convinces Nick to help him in his quest to reunite with Daisy. Meanwhile, Nick, the book’s narrator, spends time with Daisy’s best friend, cheeky golf pro Jordan Baker (Eleri Ward), while Tom cavorts with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Solea Pfeiffer), whose mechanic husband, George (Matthew Amira), owns an auto repair shop.

“It was actually a little jarring how much I saw of myself in those characters that I hadn’t seen before,” Majok says. “It feels immensely personal to me and my experiences of America. It’s a very exposing adaptation for me. Maybe nobody else will see it, but I feel like I’m all over it.”

Martyna Majok, who wrote the book for the ART's musical adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," observes a rehearsal.Ken Yotsukura

As a Polish-American immigrant who came to this country with her mother as a child, Majok felt a strong connection to self-made striver Jay Gatsby and the fierce Myrtle Wilson, a working-class woman yearning to escape her status. She saw aspects of her mother, who worked in factories and cleaned houses, in the resolute George Wilson.


In previous adaptations, Majok says, Myrtle has been portrayed as “this crass cartoon of a working-class character … I was like, ‘Absolutely not. Over my dead body.’ I just saw so much complicated life and realness in that character.”

Meanwhile, Gatsby is the ultimate fake-it-till-you-make it upstart, someone “who never feels that he has enough, who has to keep on trying to ascend the ranks of society in order to feel like he can matter. And I’m like, ‘Hmm, who does that sound like?’” she says with a knowing laugh.

Around the time she was hired, Majok shared with Welch a recording of her 2021 play “Sanctuary City,” about two teenage immigrant Dreamers. “The yearning in it deeply resonated with her, as well as the feral hunger of the characters. And those two phrases, ‘yearning’ and ‘feral hunger,’ have been our tonal north stars with ‘Gatsby’ and were the qualities that I was responding to in the book.”

The score, Chavkin says, runs the gamut, flavored with the electronic rock and pulsating pop that characterizes Florence + the Machine anthems like “Dog Days Are Over.” There are songs with “as romantic a series of chords and lyrics as I’ve ever heard”; bangers and bops for the big party scenes; ballads that evoke the plaintive folk-rock of Joni Mitchell; and a song with a pulsating Nine Inch Nails vibe that comes after a fight between two characters in the second act.


“The audience will be getting a score that sounds much more like a Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett fusion than a traditional Broadway musical,” she explains.

The show’s promotional tagline, “An American Myth,” has a multivalent meaning. Sure, Gatsby himself is a self-mythologizing hero — a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger type. But the real myth, Chavkin asserts, is the contradiction at the heart of the nation’s promise, the beckoning green light that’s called people to its shores for generations, and the broken dreams that lie in its wake.

“To believe in Gatsby is to believe in America, to believe in this promise of ascension and the idea that we’re all created equal, but that’s not really the case,” Chavkin says. “The idea of equality is a myth that people fight to make real every day. I think the show is trying to hold both the beauty of the myth and the painfulness that it is a myth in equal measure.”


Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. May 26-Aug. 3. Tickets from $35. 617-547-8300, AmericanRepertoryTheater.org/Gatsby

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.