The musical, directed by Randal Myler and written by Mark Harelik (book), Sarah Knapp (lyrics) and Steven M. Alper (music and orchestrations), will be the first production at the 399-seat auditorium of the west side's newest multi-theatre complex, 37 Arts Theatre at 450 West 37th Street.
The production is produced by HELLO Entertainment. Previews begin Oct. 1.
Patience pays off for the collaborators of The Immigrant. The show played a developmental run produced Off-Off-Broadway by CAP 21 in fall 2000 and then had two 2002 regional engagements (with a slightly different cast and a refined script) at Denver Center Theatre Company and Coconut Grove Playhouse. Evan Pappas originated the role of Haskell in the CAP 21 run, Heller played it regionally.
The Immigrant "focuses on the true story of Haskell Harelik, a young Russian Jew who instead of passing through Ellis Island, enters through Galveston and struggles to assimilate into a rural community in Texas," according to the announcement. "Commonly referred to as the 'Galveston Movement,' Harelik's story begins like so many others in 1909, peddling a pushcart full of bananas and wares — but his fate is changed forever when he asks Milton, a small-town banker, and his Southern Baptist wife for a drink of water from their well. Harelik's compelling story of opportunity, success and the challenges of educating a new community is the essence of the American experience."
The fruit peddler's grandson turned out to be actor playwright Mark Harelik. The four-actor show features Heller (Caroline, or Change, A Class Act) as Haskell; Walter Charles (Wit, Aspects of Love) as Milton; Cass Morgan (Beauty and the Beast, Pump Boys and Dinettes) as Milton's wife, Ima; and Jacqueline Antaramian (Wrong Mountain, Pride's Crossing) as Haskell's wife, Leah.
The score is varied, with sounds of the Old Country commingling with folky sounds of Texas folk of 100 years ago. The four-actor play that inspired the musical was one of the most-produced titles in regional theatres in the 1990s.
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 said, "There is very little of what you would call pastiche; it's flavored by traditional elements, but hopefully never overwhelmed by it."
The Immigrant will play Tuesday-Saturday at 8 PM with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets for previews are $50 and $35 and for regular performances $55 & $40. For more information log on to www.theimmigrantmusical.com.
Tickets will be available via Ticketmaster at (212) 307-4100.
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. The play even spawned a sequel.
The original production in 1985 was sweetened by projections of historical images of Hamilton, TX, and family photos.
Since the musical's 2000 premiere there has be "a lot" of work on the script and score, Myler previously told Playbill On-Line.
"The three of them have worked very hard to nip and tuck," Myler said. "It's never gonna be a short show because of the time that is spanned, but they've done great work tightening it up."
Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Donovan Marley 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 [play] appeared in 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]."
Songwriters Knapp and Alper, married for 17 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 previously 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.