The Immigrant, a musical about roots, goes back to its own beginnings Jan. 24 when Denver Center Theatre Company — the nonprofit that nurtured the source play, also called The Immigrant — opens 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 — a show written in the span of about nine months, said Myler — its world premiere. It would become one of the most-produced titles in regional theatres over the next decade and would spawn a sequel. Now, the characters sing.
Harelik penned 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 CAP21-produced New York City world premiere of the musical in 2000, again directs. DCTC presents the folky, intimate work at the 700-seat Stage Theatre, the largest of the nonprofit's venues. Previews began Jan. 17. Performances continue to Feb. 23.
The Denver 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 (Off-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. In New York, the sold-out Immigrant musical got an encouraging review from The New York Times, but the run was so limited and seats so scarce that it was hardly noticed by the producing community, Myler said. There is hope producers will come to see the show in Denver and that the musical's future will be as vast as the play's past.
The Immigrant (both play and musical) 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 was sweetened by projections of historical images of Hamilton, TX, and family photos. The work appeared in major regional theatres throughout the country, including The Mark Taper Forum, Meadow Brook Theatre and The Alley Theater.
What's new since the musical's 2000 premiere in New York?
"There has been a lot of work," Myler told Playbill On-Line. "The three of them have worked very hard to nip and tuck. It's never gonna be a short show because of the time that is spanned, but they've done great work tightening it up."
No songs were added or fully cut since New York (where running time was almost three hours), but some songs were "halved," Myler said.
Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director had great faith in Myler and DCTC actor Mark Harelik 17 years ago, Myler explained. Marley encouraged them to come up with a new show when Lost Highway, Myler's revue about Hank Williams, fell through in the 1984-85 season.
"Mark had always wanted to write a story about his grandfather," Myler said. "So we came back and pitched that to Donovan. I went down to Hamilton, TX, with Mark and met Haskell Harelik, who was in his late 90s at the time and in a rest home. Mark's dad, Milton, took me to meet him. Although he had left Russia in his teens, [Haskell] had reverted completely back to Yiddish and did not remember [his American experience]."
On that formative trip to the real landscape of the play, Myler was driven to the local high school, which was built on land donated by Haskell Harelik, who had become prosperous. "It was a complete circle," Myler said.
What made The Immigrant such a hit?
"It's a very small story of one family," he said. "But it's very universal." Myler said when the show played Los Angeles, people would show up at the stage door saying, "This is the story of my grandfather, too, but he's Korean."
It's wrong to try to make the play too sentimental, and that's been avoided in the musical, too, Myler said. The Christian Texans and the Russian Jews of the tale are serious-minded, hardworking people who do not easily trust or let go of their traditions. "It's very seductive to make the old couple kindly and the immigrant too cute, and it becomes a syrupy story, but that doesn't work..."
What's been the challenge of directing the musical version?
"For me," Myler said, "it's clearing my head [of the old show]. I co-conceived the original play with Mark. The fun for me is to see it as a musical and to hear underscoring and not fight it, and to see it didn't need slides [visual elements which were part of the original production]."
Designers for the new Denver production 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, TX, artist Carl Rice Embry," according to press notes; Andrew V. Yelusich, who costumed the original play; Don Darnutzer (lighting) and David R. White (sound). Musical director is Kimberly Grigsby, late of The Full Monty.
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, at the 99-seat called the CAP21 Theater on 28th Street.
Also at DCTC this month: Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter (through March 2) at the 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.
The DCTC production of The Immigrant moves to Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse in March.
— By Kenneth Jones