Fall 2015

His world’s the stage

Young artist borrows from the past to create a future

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
Santino DeAngelo visits a familiar venue, the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton.

As a composer, producer and playwright, Santino DeAngelo ’13 knows a good story when he hears one.

For this up-and-coming artist and impresario, there is no better source material than ancient Roman and Greek tales of love, trickery and transformation.

In July, DeAngelo achieved a theatrical career milestone when the New York Musical Theatre Festival chose his Shakespearean musical comedy, Foolerie, as one of its 22 productions for a six-day run. 

It is the 11th piece he has written for the stage — and he just turned 25.

He follows his own path

DeAngelo, a Binghamton native, chose Binghamton University in part for its hometown connection and also for the opportunity to explore something beyond what he already knew. His family, including his father Jan DeAngelo ’88, is a theatrical and musical mainstay of the community.

“I was getting my theatrical education in the real world, so I wanted to use my time at the University to explore other interests,” says DeAngelo, who was a double major in classical civilizations and myth in performance from the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies. He created this unique degree through the Harpur College Individualized Major Program.

Although he originally intended to pursue a music/theatre degree, DeAngelo discovered his self-taught piano skills left him in academic limbo. On a whim, he stopped by the second-year Latin class of John H. Starks Jr., associate professor and chairman of Classical and Near Eastern Studies.

“I have always loved classical mythology — it’s the science of storytelling — but sometimes it takes someone else to fan the flame that’s already there in your heart’s center,” DeAngelo says. “Professor Starks showed me that I could actually use my classical education and interest in myth-
ology as a foundation for my work as an artist. 

“I consider myself beyond lucky to have found the classics department. They are accomplished scholars who selflessly share their success with their students,” he adds.

As DeAngelo studied classical culture, which includes the ancient Greeks and Romans, he began to adapt those stories and themes into various works of performing art: a ballet based on Pygmalion, a musical composition about Salmacis and a modern rendition of an ancient Roman pantomime about Narcissus.

“He [DeAngelo] recognized what he wanted to do, then got the training to handle that material so as to give it authenticity,” Starks says. “He developed a sense of how ancient pantomime worked without having a full ancient model to build upon.”

“I work in reception, which is a fancy word for how the classics are received in the modern world. The goal is always to better understand the universal elements of our human experience, whether as an ancient Roman or a modern-day American,” DeAngelo says.

“The classical mind looks upon modern pop-culture and sees the past everywhere. From Arcade Fire to Bruno Mars, mythologists and classicists are constantly making connections,” he adds.

In 2012, DeAngelo provided the music for a new translation of Plautus’ Mostellaria, which had the tongue-in-cheek title The Ghoul Next Door and was presented at a conference on ancient comedy at Binghamton University.

“It was an unusual project because we had to find some way of working with the metrical tone of the original text — it had to feel like free-form prose,” Starks says.

“We decided not to replicate the ancient Greek music, which featured melody and rhythm.” Instead, Santino experimented with different styles of song to underscore the comedy. One number used klezmer music. “At one point in a musical party scene, players break into a tango, which gave a modern feel to an ancient moment,” he adds.

It is not only the tales of Ovid or Aristophanes that fire DeAngelo’s creative imagination. He found inspiration in the 20th-century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca and, in 2011, he received a Harpur Fellows Program grant for a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The project had the goal of educating at-risk youth in the local community about breaking cycles of violence as well as showcasing a new translation of the play.

Andrew Walkling, dean’s assistant professor of art history, English and theatre, calls DeAngelo “a voracious student of culture.”

“He’s interested in historical material for its own sake and how to translate it into art. Santino is both a scholar and an artist, which makes him exceptional,” Walkling adds.

“I create with history in mind, because art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither does life. Both history and art attempt to capture truth through narrative,” DeAngelo says. 

What’s next?

In September, DeAngelo began pursuing a master of fine arts in playwriting at Columbia University, one of 10 graduate students in this elite program.

“Playwriting is at the heart of everything I do. At the heart of every artistic experience is a story,” he says.

He recognizes the challenge of working in a medium — musical theater — where the work is either financially successful or artistically satisfying, but rarely both.

“I am admittedly uncomfortable with the pressure to create entertainment at the expense of intellectual engagement. I am always trying to bridge that gap between mindless enjoyment and mindful exploration,” he adds.

While DeAngelo is getting creative advice from such theatrical giants as Stephen Sondheim, he increasingly realizes that he may make his living as an executive producer. 

“Everything I learned producing my own work in Binghamton laid the foundation for what I do as a producer in New York. I hope to establish myself as a factory of new work, where my future is defined only by what drives me — I go where the work leads me,” he says.

DeAngelo’s philosophy for the future in the arts is simple: Do what you love and do it smartly. That means keeping the larger picture in mind as he makes choices now, so that they will eventually support the future goal.

Wherever his future lies, it will have a solid foundation in the past, says Walkling.

“Santino’s view and understanding of the world parallels that of western culture itself: It goes back to deep roots in the classical world and the Renaissance, but he draws upon those sources to create something new that is relevant to contemporary society.”