Some rock fans of the mid-1990s may have thought Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins was dealing with ancient history when he wrote and sang the band's biggest hit, "1979."
Now that Corgan, who hails from Chicago, has become the latest '90s rocker to jump into musical theater, it's beyond questioning that he's dealing with ancient history.
His debut, a short musical called "Pretty Persephone," is based on the Greek myth of Persephone's abduction to the underworld by the god Hades, by which the ancients explained how the seasons came to be.
The 20-minute show, running through Dec. 14 at the Music Theatre Company in Highland Park, Ill., on a 90-minute bill of new short musicals, focuses on how the myth was celebrated in an annual secret rite called the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones liked last weekend's premiere well enough to be left wanting more -- his main complaint was that "'Pretty Persephone' feels as if it ends right in the middle."
The show was performed to a recorded musical track grounded in trance-like electronica. "'Pretty Persephone ... is weird. Deeply weird," Jones wrote, "with Corgan exploring, I think, the intersection between the ritualistic and the individual under duress.... Corgan is at home in a mythic landscape of ancient priests and initiations and the possibilities of ecstasy and redemption."
"He should keep going with his 'Pretty Persephone' and invite us back when it's done and he knows what he wants to say as well as feel," the critic concluded, but "even now, if you're pining for a Corgan fix ... you'll not leave disappointed."
Another group that made its reputation in the 1990s, Green Day made a successful foray onto the stage with "American Idiot." The work, which premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009, put a dramatic frame around songs Green Day already had released, mainly on its 2004 album, "American Idiot."
Two others featured music written specifically for the theater, like Corgan's. "Spring Awakening," with music by erstwhile pop-rock singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, which premiered off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater in spring 2006, and "Passing Strange," with songs by Stew (nee Mark Stewart) and Heidi Rodewald of the L.A. indie-rock band the Negro Problem, which premiered at Berkeley Rep in fall 2006.
Follow @boehmm of the L.A. Times for arts news and features