Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard come together to musicalize Ellis Island. MN Daily By Joe Kellen September 26, 2013
Actor Sasha Andreev smiled as he sat in the lobby of the Lab Theater. “It’s kinda perfect,” he said.
When you first walk into the space, you look up. There’s only seating for about 200 people, but it’s enormous in height. The brick-walled theater is exactly what creator and director Peter Rothstein needs to tell the expansive story of “Steerage Song.”
“The theatricality of that is what’s fun about it. ... It’s an intimate space, so small things end up carrying a lot more meaning than they might in a big house,” said Rothstein, the artistic director of Theater Latté Da.
Focusing on the personal journeys of immigrants coming to the U.S., “Steerage Song” is a love letter to the diverse cultures that built the country. The musical contains songs performed in 17 different languages.
“These stories were deeply moving, so we wanted to figure out a way to focus on the music, in part, but create a vehicle that allowed us to honor these people,” co-creator and music director Dan Chouinard said.
Conceived in 2009, the show was originally supposed to highlight famous musicians that came through Ellis Island. Rothstein and Chouinard found the accounts of average immigrants to be more exciting after producing a version of the show in concert form in 2011 and studying documents from the early 1900s.
“They provided, literally, stacks of books. It’s helped ground us in the reality of this journey,” actor Jay Hornbacher said about Rothstein and Chouinard.
A lot of the text in “Steerage Song” was developed using newspapers and quotes from notable speeches. Since the pool of material was so large, Rothstein and Chouinard created a piece that doesn’t have a titular character. It’s focused on the ensemble, moving over a wide variety of stories and characters.
Hornbacher said the size and scope of the work makes performance challenging. “You don’t have time to develop a character. It has to be right there, right now without it becoming an archetype or a caricature,” he said.
The actors aren’t the only ones doing the heavy lifting, though.Chouinard built the score with folk tunes from 20 countries. The pit musicians use everything from accordions to banjos to give the music an authentic feel.
“A lot of times the song gives you enough that you don’t need to make big gestures or some huge emotional performance. If you just sing the song, it’s amazing the kind of power it can have,” Andreev said.
This simplicity is crucial to the style of the show — while developing the piece over the past few years, Rothstein has worked to make sure nothing is overblown. He said it keeps the work honest and avoids romanticizing these struggles. The musical waves an American flag but doesn’t pretend that immigrants didn’t face fierce discrimination.
For Hornbacher, this unsentimental portrayal of immigration is what makes “Steerage Song” relevant today. “A lot of the things that are said in this play that are negative about immigrants are things that I hear, practically on a daily basis,” he said.
What: “Steerage Song” When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 28-Oct. 20 Where: The Lab Theater, 700 N. First St., Minneapolis Cost: $35-81