Art Smitten

On Air

Review: Einstein, Master of the Universe


Albert Einstein is the latest scientific genius to have lured a scriptwriter into the trap of biography. Jess Newman was clearly intrigued by the mind of the famous theoretical physicist when she started to write the sung-through musical Einstein: Master of the Universe. Watching it, you can feel her yearning to see the world as he saw it, if even for a moment, and to understand what he saw. Her audience, I’m sure, is after the same thing, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is something she either cannot, will not or has lost interest in delivering.

This is one of those biopics that gravitates more towards the “man behind the science” than the work itself. The bulk of the story is taken up by Einstein’s younger years at university, starting just after the turn of the century, until he travelled to America in the early 30s. His two marriages are used as a frame for his journey from patent office clerk to Nobel-prize-winning physicist. Mileva Marić, his long-suffering first wife, can only stand his obsession with his theories for so long, and his affair with Elsa Löwenthal is the last straw. Elsa marries the famous man whose mind mystifies her, but the mystery soon loses its novelty as it did with Mileva. There’s only so far you can go with someone who always keeps you on the outer.

Ironically, and perhaps even intentionally, the audience feels the same way. Despite the beautiful projection art and animation from Jack Crosby, and Newman’s impassioned tunes and lyrics, Einstein’s inner world remains inaccessible, and its highlighted connections to our human world are just a little too trite, even for a musical. We understand that this is an underdog story, one about an ambitious young man hoping to prove everyone wrong, because we’ve seen those kinds of stories before. The young academic’s contemporaries and rivals are amusing villains in their own right, but the substance of his conflicts with them, the science itself, is not given the space to be understood and appreciated. Much of it is stuffed into the throwaway lines of babble that fill up the more light-hearted comedic songs.

Most of the big pathos numbers are set aside for an equally expected story, that of the man who was a great genius but a failure of a husband and father. The more refreshing aspect of this subplot is Mileva, who, as a mathematics student, has much more to offer than Albert gives her credit for. Again, rather like the audience, she wants to be treated as an equal, and is tired of being shut out. She can see that her husband’s head is buzzing with thoughts, but, as she tells him repeatedly, her family cannot live on thoughts.

It is not enough just to watch a man sit at his desk and rave about his epiphanies in the vaguest of terms. We need something to take away from it. We want to hear something that we haven’t heard before, or at least something that we haven’t heard so many times before.

In this regard, it seems as though Newman simply made the mistake of picking the wrong years to focus on. While Einstein’s early career might not have offered much original material to work with, his time in America as a refugee, his involvement in the Second World War and in the civil rights movement, his religious writings, and the many other chapters in his later years may well have been theatrical dynamite.

Newman’s compositions, the talents of the triple-threat cast and the skill of the production team are all top notch, all impressively assembled and ready to deliver a fascinating, remarkable story. Unfortunately, it looks like the timeline was being held the wrong way up in the script development process, leading to the expansion of the years that play out more like celebrity gossip than historical biography, and the baffling omission of the meatier material.

Review written by Christian Tsoutsouvas