A new retelling of the drama and mystery surrounding the world’s most expensive painting is set to take the stage in New York in 2022 as a major Broadway musical.
“Salvator Mundi!” The Musical, announced by Tony Award-winning production company Caiola Productions, will chronicle the tale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance-era portrait of Jesus, presumed lost for hundreds of years and only rediscovered this century.
The screenwriter of “Salvator Mundi!,” Deborah Grace Winer, believes Leonardo’s artwork has all of the ingredients needed to make a compelling historical narrative for the stage.
“There’s an epic quality about (this story) that I think goes very well with musicals. It’s almost Shakespearean and operatic in the sweep of (its) history,” she said over the phone from Manhattan.
The small, 26-inch-tall panel was commissioned by Louis XII of France around 1500, but after getting damaged and being covered with dark overpaint, it was believed for centuries to be a copy by a lesser-known artist. In 2005 the painting was sold at auction as a copy of the original for less than $10,000 to a consortium of art dealers. Infrared technology then revealed earlier reworkings of Jesus’ hand, signaling it was likely made by Leonardo himself.
The painting had a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2011, and its price tag skyrocketed. “Salvator Mundi” then circulated between private collectors until its record-shattering $450.3 million auction price at Christie’s in 2017.
It is a story that poses the question: “What makes art; what gives anything value?” Winer said. “It’s this idea of following one object through (history). It’s about power and symbols. For $450 million, you could buy the savior of the world.”
Intrigue still follows the work. In another twist, “Salvator Mundi” has not been publicly seen since the auction hammer dropped three years ago. The Louvre Abu Dhabi inexplicably delayed its much anticipated unveiling in 2018, and it has yet to emerge, believed to be in storage in Geneva or in the private yacht of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The forthcoming musical won’t be the first time the Master painter’s enigmatic life and career has been reimagined for theatergoers. In 1993, critics balked at the ill-fated 1993 West End theater production “Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love,” on the making of his famed “Mona Lisa,” which left the stage after only two months.
Yet art history is a rare subject for theater. In 1984, Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” became the subject of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” which won multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has seen many revivals. More recently, the pop-rock musical “Starry,” about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo has had runs in Los Angeles and New York.
The saga of “Salvator Mundi” may seem like a niche topic for a stage production, but Winer believes some of the most popular musicals have succeeded because they are particular stories told in a compelling way. She points to the famous musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” a tale about a Jewish family in a settlement in Imperial Russia, which premiered in 1964 and has been performed in multiple countries around the world for half a century.
Then there’s “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop take on one of the early supporters of US constitutionalism, who received far less attention than his historical counterparts like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
“Who would think that a musical about an obscure founding father would be so fascinating to people?” Winer asked. “The unlikeliest stories find incredible interest from audiences. The more specific it is, sometimes the more universal it becomes.”
The references to Leonardo da Vinci’s name have been updated in this article.