Dana Leslie Goldstein on the Creation of Liberty
The new musical's author talks about her hopes for lively conversations between young and old.
On July 4, Liberty, a Monumental New Musical, opens for an extended off-Broadway run at 42West. I wrote the book and lyrics, and my brother, Jon Goldstein, composed the music. The story of Liberty is a personal one for us, just as it is for so many Americans.
Our father's name and our grandparents' names are on the Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island. They came here looking for a new life, and they sailed into New York Harbor. They were lucky enough to stand on the deck of their ship and see the Statue of Liberty waiting there for them. I grew up imagining what that must have been like.
But there was a time before Liberty welcomed the huddled masses. Liberty imagines that time in a magical way: Our title character — Liberty herself — is a young girl, an immigrant from France. She comes to America alone, during a recession, at a time when there was a great deal of anti-immigrant sentiment. Sound familiar? The immigration debate was raging in 1885, and many were ready to close the golden door.
America had also just fought a civil war, and the wounds were fresh. Liberty finds herself in a much more complicated country than she expected. But she has enormous dreams. She's going to heal rifts, welcome the tired, and the poor, and become a symbol of hope for generations to come. She quickly realizes this won't be easy, but that doesn't stop her. Liberty will grow up to become the embodiment of the American dream.
Liberty began as an educational touring musical that we brought to schools and theaters all over the East Coast. After 9/11, when (among other things) school groups could no longer visit the Statue of Liberty on a field trip, we'd bring the field trip to the students. Although the material was curriculum-based, adults would repeatedly tell us that they'd been moved to tears and learned things themselves. In particular, most audience members knew that Liberty held a torch and tablet, but they weren't aware that she stands on a pair of shackles, which symbolize slavery, and she is crushing them. The statue isn't just a symbol of welcome, but also one of freedom from oppression.
It became clear very quickly that Liberty was meant to be more than a school assembly program. It had multigenerational appeal. We began developing it into a full-length family musical, deepening the characterizations and plot lines, introducing an antagonist, Francis Walker, who is based on a very real anti-immigrant bureaucrat of the period.
Walker isn't just a straw man. I was careful to make his arguments grounded and reasonable, but his most virulent lines are actual quotes. In the show, he is instrumental in having Liberty vetoed by President Cleveland. This is something that actually happened. After France gave us the Statue of Liberty, the American government promised to provide funding for her pedestal. But the president vetoed this support. Instead, the money was raised with donations as tiny as a few cents, from schoolchildren and working people all over the country. It's a very early example of crowd-funding!
Now, Liberty still makes you think and feel, as well as laugh and leave singing. But it's also appropriate for every age group. My ideal audience, however, is a family that spans generations. I would love it if seeing Liberty together prompted a grandparent and grandchild to talk about their family's history, how they got here, what kind of strength and sacrifice it took, and what the American dream has meant for them.