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Why a rocker was inspired to pen a bio show about the polarizing urban planner
If Peter Galperin hadn't moved to New York, he would have never written Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses, a bio musical about the controversial master builder who reshaped the metropolitan area in the 20th century. "I first came across Moses's name on a highway sign on Long Island shortly after I arrived around 30 years ago," says Galperin, who penned the show's songs and co-authored the book. "As I began to travel more around the region, his name kept popping up everywhere. I've always been a history buff, perhaps because my mom was a history teacher. I soon found Robert Caro's book about Moses, The Power Broker, and reading that was an epiphany. It explained so much about modern New York, especially how much of a mess it is traffic-wise and why there are so many highways on top of or next to each other. I read the book five or six times in just a few years."
But it wasn't until Galperin entered a songwriting contest sponsored by the New York City Parks Department in 2012 that he decided to musicalize his Moses mania. "I tried to write an up-tempo tune, something they could use as a theme song," he recalls. "But what I ended up writing was a nine-minute folk song called 'The Ballad of Robert Moses.' Not surprisingly, they rejected it."
Yet Galperin believed he was onto something, so he wrote another song about Moses called "Straight Towards the Sun" and began playing both tunes with his rock band at clubs like the Bitter End. "It was amazing," Galperin says. "After every concert, people would come up and tell me anecdotal stories about Moses, like how they saw him at Jones Beach, which he designed, or how their grandmother went to the opening of the Throgs Neck Bridge. I knew I had hit on something, but I didn't know what to do about it. And then my wife suggested writing a musical, even though I had never done that before."
After years of development, Bulldozer is playing Off-Broadway at Theatre at St. Clement's starring Tony nominee Constantine Maroulis as Moses. It's a taut, 100-minute tuner spotlighting pivotal moments in Moses's life, including his frenemyship with Nelson Rockefeller (Wayne Wilcox), his romance with Vera Martin (Kacie Sheik, portraying a composite character), and his clash with urban activist Jane Jacobs (Molly Pope) over his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which led to his professional demise. "I wanted to educate people about Moses's life and accomplishments without it feeling like a Ken Burns documentary," Galperin says.
"I read Peter's book first, and then I listened to the score separately," recalls director Karen Carpenter. "I've learned to never listen to the music first because it can be so seductive, it can hide all the flaws of a book, which always has to stand on its own. In this case, I thought there was quite a story, one with a lot of conflict, but I had two real issues with how it was being told."
One was Moses's arc. "We have to like Moses at the beginning, to see him as an idealist and a dreamer, which he was," she says. "Then we can slowly reveal all his flaws -- especially his prejudices about race and class -- so that his downfall feels really dramatic. It's a bit manipulative, but it is effective."
Carpenter's other concern was the two-dimensional nature of the supporting characters. "I felt they needed some strengthening," she says. "Like many people, I love a lot of what Moses did, such as building the Verrazano Bridge. But, god bless her, Jane made all of us understand the human cost of his plans, essentially the eviction of thousands upon thousands of people from their homes for no good reason. He didn't really care about people; he cared only about automobiles."
Ultimately, the creators hope audiences will see Bulldozer as a nuanced portrait of a complex historical figure whose legacy continues to impact our lives. "Moses was the product of his time, someone who saw the automobile as making life better," says Galperin. "He didn't imagine all the negative consequences of cars, like deaths from accidents or bumper-to-bumper traffic. There's no question that Moses viewed the city from aerial photographs; to him, it was just lines on a map. He did not see, or want to see, New York from the street level."
Top image: Wayne Wilcox and Constantine Maroulis in Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses. Photos by Michael Blase.