"Immigration is so central to what our country is about that I think it's never going to go away."
The two-decade journey to bring a musical about Lady Liberty to the stage
When writer/lyricist Dana Leslie Goldstein and her composer brother Jon began working on the first iteration of Liberty: A Monumental New Musical 18 years ago, the show's current leading lady hadn't even been born. In fact, if 16-year-old Abigail Shapiro hadn't come along, the title character -- a living embodiment of the Statue of Liberty -- might still be played by an adult as originally conceived.
Despite these changes, however, the initial inspiration for the tuner remains more relevant than ever. "When we first started, there was this debate going on about immigration, so it was very topical," remembers Ms. Goldstein. "Then it took longer for the show to be developed than we thought, and we worried we were going to miss our window. But the debate hasn't stopped. Immigration is so central to what our country is about that I think it's never going to go away."
Playing through September 3 at 42West, the show certainly feels connected to election-year debates. Any digs at current political candidates are purely coincidental, however. "There's a line I wrote a long time ago but it's landing very differently now: 'You can't build a wall,'" says Ms. Goldstein. "When I originally came up with it, I just liked the metaphor! The stakes are higher now."
That line is spoken in reaction to Francis A. Walker, based on the famous 19th-century American economist and statistician who was a vocal proponent of restricting immigration. He, along with a blue-blood character named Regina Schuyler (a fictional scion of Hamilton's famous sisters) are the show's villains, threatening to deport the statue back to her native France. Meanwhile, newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer and poet Emma Lazarus (who penned "The New Colossus") are the heroes, along with invented immigrant characters representing the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" that Lady Liberty welcomed to our nation until laws changed drastically in 1924.
The cast of 'Liberty: A Monumental Musical'
Liberty was originally written as a 45-minute educational show that toured schools. But over the years, the Goldsteins decided to expand its run time and reach, mounting a full-length version in 2014. That's when they hired Shapiro, the first child to play the title role, which prompted the siblings to make a lot of changes. "Casting her [as the statue] added this new perspective to the piece," says Ms. Goldstein. "She's innocent and wide-eyed and learning, and the adults onstage open themselves up to her in a vulnerable way that is different because she's a child. Everything has evolved around her. For example, the Italian newsboy used to be the child character, but now we've changed him into a young man and added a romantic twist with Emma Lazarus, who's teaching him English. That would have never happened if not for Abby. When she stepped into the role, it all became much more poignant."
In order to translate the statue's drama-filled story into a concise, kid-friendly show, the Goldsteins understandably had to take a few (ahem) liberties in terms of historical accuracy. It's impressive, though, how many fascinating facts remain, and even grown-ups may discover a thing or two. Did you know that the money to build the statue's pedestal was crowdfunded in large part by ordinary American citizens, thanks to Pulitzer promoting the campaign in his newspaper the New York World? Or that a broken shackle and chain lie at the Statue's right foot in tribute to the abolition of slavery? Meanwhile, kids may be shocked to realize that Lady Liberty wasn't always green. Ms. Goldstein hopes these tidbits, along with the emotional stories of fictional immigrants, will be equally interesting to parents and children.
"Back when we were doing it in schools, we kept hearing from adults that they learned things, too, and even teared up," remembers Ms. Goldstein. "That prompted us to build it into a larger show. My goal really is to have the audience be multigenerational: grandparents, parents, and grandchildren. I'd love if the show prompts family conversations about where they came from, how they started out, and the American dream."
Thanks to a partnership with Ancestry.com, all of the cast members were given DNA tests to find out their exact ethnic heritage, and many were surprised by the results. "One cast member is part Native American, part Sicilian, part Puerto Rican, and part African-American," says Shapiro. "He can speak like any language in the world. My test hasn't come back yet. Maybe I'm an alien."
All joking aside, Ms. Goldstein thinks Americans learning about their melting-pot backgrounds echoes the message of Liberty. "People often think they're just one thing but really, we're all connected," she says. "The fabric of our country is always changing and that's part of what makes it great. It's not one static, stagnate place. The face of liberty isn't one kind of person.
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Photos by Russ Rowland
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