A musical about a major American figure seemed like the right way to observe the Fourth of July. But I wanted to see one this year for less than $800, which meant Hamilton wasn’t happening. Luckily for me, there is a smart and engaging new musical called Liberty, which details the story of the creation of the Statue of Liberty. Along the way, it holds up a mirror to our own time with worries about the economy and immigration, and it asks us whether we truly believe in Liberty.
. . . a smart and engaging new musical . . .
This could have been a whitewashed 90 minutes of feel-good patriotism, but Jon Goldstein (music) and Dana Leslie Goldstein (book and lyrics) resisted that urge from the beginning. Instead, they opted for as much truth as an American musical can provide. The tension between nativists and the wave of immigrants from southern Europe in the 1880s was actually worse than the tension today between those who would build a wall and those who would come to America to better their lives.
Liberty (played by teenager Abigail Shapiro, of whom we will see much more in the coming years) is a difficult character to describe. At one and the same time, she is the Statue of Liberty and a human being (and for those with a philosophical bent, the idea of Liberty incarnate). Her father, the artist Bartholdi (Ryan Duncan), who crafted the statue, sends her to America. We feel his anxiety as an artist sending a work out into the world, but also, we see the story of a child being sent to America and of the separation of families – a story repeated quite literally millions of times.
She touches the lives of those on Ellis Island: the immigrants, like Giovanni Ferro (Nick DeVito), who struggles to learn English in order to get his foot on the ladder of social mobility, as well as the nativists, Francis A. Walker (Brandon Andrus) and Regina Schuyler (Tina Stafford). Emma Lazarus (played brilliantly by Emma Rosenthal), a young poet from a well-established and assimilated Jewish family (in those days, anti-semitism was more than socially acceptable), is inspired to write her famous poem “The New Colossus,” the opening lines of which appear on the Statue’s tablet. The problem is America won’t pay for the pedestal on which the statue will stand – President Cleveland killed the funding.
Musically, this show has a few catchy tunes and each drives the story forward. While there isn’t a showstopper, there is a wonderfully funny “We Had It Worse,” in which an Irish immigrant, Patrick McKay (Mark Aldrich), and Eastern European newcomer, Olga Moscowitz (Ms. Stafford again; the cast of 8 play numerous roles), bicker over whose story is more pathetic. With a nod to the Yorkshiremen sketch Monty Python did around 1970, the lyrics include:
Moscowitz: We threw everything we had into one tiny, little sack.
McKay: You had a sack?
Moscowitz: A moth-eaten, raggedy old…
McKay: We had no sack. We only took what we could carry in our pockets.
Moscowitz: Well, we didn’t even have pockets….
In any telling of the story of immigration to America, two groups create difficulties for those who would see it told without blemishes: the First Americans and African slaves. The first group was dispossessed by the immigration waves and the second came involuntarily. The Goldsteins don’t shy away from this. James Goodleaf (Mr. Duncan again) is a Mohawk iron worker who has a pass to work off the reservation (apartheid in America). His optimism in “More Like Home” suggests that the dispossessed can still find a place. Samuel Ferguson (C. Mingo Long) is a black American who plainly asks of Liberty in the song “More,” does she stand for him? You want to say yes, but in 130 years, perhaps, progress has been a bit thin on the ground. His is not a pessimistic role, but rather it is one that provides realism.
In the end, it is the free press in the form of Joseph Pulitzer (Mr. Aldrich again) and his newspaper The World that raise the funds a few pennies at a time by printing the names of donors.
Evan Pappas directed, and this ensemble of eight feels like a cast of a couple dozen, thanks to the effort. Deborah Hobson nailed the costumes, covering everything from Walker’s dandyism to Moscowitz’s worn babushka look. Despite this being a period piece, it is a production that is not history alone – it’s part of today’s political discussion.
Running Time: 100 minutes without intermission
Liberty is playing through September 4, 2016 at the 42 West Theater. For more information and tickets, click here.