The Immigrant, a musical about roots, among other things, goes back to its own beginnings in January 2002 when Denver Center Theatre Company, the nonprofit that nurtured the source play, also called The Immigrant, presents the new show's regional premiere.
More than 15 years ago, in collaboration with director Randal Myler, playwright Mark Harelik wrote a play, The Immigrant: A Hamilton Family Album, about his European Jewish forebears settling in Texas rather than the more Jewish-populated New York City in the 1900s. In 1985, DCTC gave the four-actor work its world premiere. It would become one of the most-produced titles in regional theatres over the next decade.
Harelik pens the book for the new musical version, which has a score by New York husband-wife team Sarah Knapp (lyrics) and Steven M. Alper (music and orchestrations). Myler, who staged the original play and the New York City world premiere of the musical in 2000, again directs. DCTC presents the folky, intimate work Jan. 17-Feb. 23, 2002, at The Stage Theatre. Official opening is Jan. 24.
The cast includes Adam Heller (making his DCTC debut) as immigrant Haskell, Jacqueline Antaramian (DCTC's 1933 and Life is a Dream) as wife Leah, Walter Charles (Of-Broadway's Wit) as Texas banker Milton and Cass Morgan as Southern Baptist wife Ima (both making their Denver Center debuts). All but Heller appeared in the Off Broadway run of The Immigrant in 2000. Evan Pappas was Haskell in New York. Heller appeared on Broadway in A Class Act and in the York Theatre Company's Merrily We Roll Along.
The Immigrant play (conceived with Myler) spawned a sequel, The Legacy. The Immigrant recounts the true story of Haskell Harelik, a Russian Jew who comes to the United States in 1909 by way of Galveston. As the musical opens, Haskell is peddling bananas from a pushcart. His life is changed forever when he asks Milton and Ima Perry for a drink of water from their well. The fruit peddler's grandson turned out to be actor-playwright Mark Harelik. The original production in 1985 (and around the country) was sweetened by projections of historical images and family photos. The work appeared in major regional theatres throughout the country, including Denver Center Theater, The Mark Taper Forum, Meadow Brook Theatre and The Alley Theater.
Designers are Ralph Funicello (set), "who suspends vintage architectural elements in front of a distant horizon inspired by the painting 'Road to Ambrose's' (1990) by renowned Hamilton, Texas artist Carl Rice Embry," according to press notes; Andrew V. Yelusich, who costumed the original play; Don Darnutzer (lighting) and David R. White (sound).
Director Myler was nominated for a 1999 Tony Award (Best Book of a Musical) for It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, which he also directed on Broadway and regionally. He also wrote and directed Off-Broadway's Love, Janis, the Janis Joplin bio-musical. He also conceived Lost Highway, his musical based on the life of Hank Williams Sr.
In New York, Albert Ahronheim was musical director.
Knapp and Alper, married for 15 years with two produced musicals (Chamberlain and The Library) under their belts met Harelik at the New Harmony Project in Indiana in 1997, and Harelik suggested his hit play as a possible source for a musical.
"I was attracted to it because it was so clearly adaptable," Knapp told Playbill On-Line. "We search and search for pieces like that. Mark's use of language so often gave clear guidelines to lyrics. Words bounced off the page. You'll see all over the place that I have stolen from Mark."
"And it was emotionally grabbing," said Alper, who has been a musical director for New York City projects for many years. "The material seemed to be ready for expansion in terms of music."
Knapp, who is also a librettist and actress (Broadway's The Scarlet Pimpernel), said the idea of a small-cast show was refreshing for the team following the 30-actor Chamberlain, A Civil War Romance, which was commissioned by Maine State Music Theatre and performed in August 1996.
"We felt immediately that The Immigrant should be a chamber piece," Knapp said. Early on, they quickly dismissed the idea of having crowds of colorful townspeople as characters.
Composer-pianist Alper was actress-singer Knapp's accompanist and they fell in love and married. Their songwriting "evolved" after he broke up with his lyricist. They live in Queens.
The musical adaptation is "very close" to the original play, Knapp said. Musically, Alper said the score has "elements of Klezmer and traditional Jewish folk music, traditional American folk and country elements" and "it's jumbled together."
"You do get a taste of the time and place and where the characters are from," Knapp added, "but it is distinctly Alper."
Alper adds, "There is very little of what you would call pastiche; it's flavored by traditional elements, but hopefully never overwhelmed by it."
CAP21, the nonprofit organization devoted to giving voice to new musical theatre writers and performers in Manhattan, opened the world premiere of The Immigrant — the group's first venture into producing full stagings — Sept. 19, 2000.
Collaborative Arts Project 21, Inc., has a studio and classroom facility on 18th Street, but has also taken up residence at a 98 seat space on 28th Street, now called the CAP21 Theater, at 15 W. 28th Street, on the second floor. Since the New York premiere, regional theatres have inquired about the property in the hope the show will be available for licensing.
Also in early 2002, DCTC presents Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter (Jan. 9-March 2) at intimate Ricketson Theatre (DCTC artistic director Donovan Marley directs) and Hamlet (Jan. 24-March 9) at The Space Theatre.
Tickets range $26-$42. Denver Center for the Performing Arts is at 14th and Curtis Street in Denver. For information, call (303) 893-4100 or (800) 641-1222) or visit denvercenter.org.
— By Kenneth Jones