Songs from the Sea: The world premiere of Steerage Song, June 2-5, brings the music and songs of the immigrant experience to life

June 2011.By Jackie Cartier, Minnesota Public Radio.

Every day, more than 5,000 men, women and children entered the threshold of their new home – filled with trepidation and excitement, and unsure of what the future may hold. From 1892 to 1954 when legislation was passed and the main entryway to the United States was sealed, a total of over 12 million hopeful immigrants came through Ellis Island, “the Island of Hope, Island of Tears,” to start a new life.

Now, almost 60 years later, the world premiere of Steerage Song at the Fitzgerald Theater (Thursday-Sunday, June 2-5) takes a look at the one thing those millions of new Americans had in common: the songs that carried them over. Presented by Theater Latté Da and created by director Peter Rothstein and singer-songwriter Dan Chouinard, Steerage Song chronicles the story of immigration through this new lens and woos audiences with more than 45 songs from 20 different countries in 17 different languages. Rothstein says he and Chouinard were interested in how far the songs alone would take them in telling the story. As expected, the research started, appropriately, in New York City.

At first, Rothstein, who had been playing with the idea of a show like Steerage Song for over four years, said progress in tracking down songs was difficult, as most of the songs haven’t made it into dominant culture. As research took them across the Atlantic, backtracking on the traditional immigration routes of the time, more and more songs speaking directly to the immigration experience were revealed. Visiting ports throughout Europe–including Queenstown, Ireland, the last port of call of RMS Titanic, which had its own steerage class full of immigrating Europeans–Rothstein said he was curious about how Europe curated its people’s emigration experience.

Back in Minnesota, the story of Steerage Song was emerging. “There’s an unusual structure, or arch, to the show,” says Rothstein. “It doesn’t adhere to traditional narrative.” Throughout the acts, Rothstein and Chouinard take audiences through many stages: the propaganda tunes inspiring the move to America; songs of bidding farewell to home; and sonnets composed in the harbor as immigrants first arrived.

Just like the immigrants themselves, the songs they wrote, sang and shared would come to shape and give birth to many facets of American song as we know it today. Rothstein says he is thrilled to share this important history with audiences, saying, “If we want to own ‘God Bless America,’ we have to own that it was written by a Russian Jew in the steerage of a boat.” Even on its own, says Rothstein, the range of music Steerage Song presents is fantastic. Coupled with the themes and story of the program, Rothstein promises the experience will be “profound and extremely entertaining.”