Music · New York Theater

The Immigrant, An American Musical, Tells the Story of How One Family Became Americans

Rita       and Sarah Knapp performing in The Immigrant, Seven Angels Theater, Waterbury Connecticutt
Rita Markova and Sarah Knapp performing in The Immigrant, Seven Angels Theater, Waterbury Connecticutt

Last weekend found us on the train to see a musical, The Immigrant, at the Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut. Based on a play by Mark Harelik, it is the story of his grandfather, a Russian Jew who fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia in 1909, immigrated through Galveston, and made his way to Hamilton, Texas, where he was befriended by a Baptist banker and his wife.

In 2000, Harelik asked Steven and Sarah to transform his play into a musical. Steven wrote the music and Sarah wrote the lyrics. Since then it  has been performed off Broadway in New York and in regional theaters throughout the United States.  This particular production was special for us because Sarah plays the banker’s wife, and Steven is the musical director, conducting and playing the piano.  Reviews have been fantastic and no wonder; it is a  beautiful piece and a superb production. Am I proud mom? Yes.

Looking through the program as I  waited for the performance to begin, I read the following program note by Harelik:

This is the story of my grandparents, young Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe in 1909.

Having come to America’s southern shores on the wave of the Galveston Plan, my grandparents Harelik (originally pronounced Gorehlik) settled in a small town in central Texas where full religious observance was difficult. Through the years, they raised three sons and entered the American community. All outward sins of the shtetl life they left behind were gone.

For the family, however, the experiences of my grandparents’ past lives were daily stories that were passed around the dinner table. And for me, the hero of this quotidian legend was my grandfather Haskell. I could almost picture him—the young Jew forced to carry his life in his pocket—his religion, his aspirations, his search for safety and stability, and (strangely, the most vivid image of all) me. I could picture myself in his pocket. He was bringing my life to this space—this great open space, this unimaginable future that I live in now.

The day I sat down to write this story, I had been on the phone with my dad. He’d taken my elderly grandfather Haskell on their weekly drive around town, which took all of 20 minutes maybe. They drove by the clothing store founded in 1911 on the town square. “There’s your store, Pop.” “My what?” “Your store—Look, see that sign up there? Haskell Harelik—it’s your name.” “My name?”

He had forgotten his name. He had forgotten his journey, his life, his story. Now I reach into my own pocket, and there he is—my great American hero, who traveled so far to live a simple life, raise a family, plant the seeds of my future. We bear these seeds from the faded pockets of our fathers and mothers. We are them, in an unseeable, ungraspable way. And by our single, potent glance back, their invisible lives are made worthy and meaningful and immortal. And in the end, when even memory is gone, that which remains lives only in the telling. I must tell you this story, for it’s all that remains of a good man’s life, and all that’s immortal in me.

I got to thinking that except for the very few of us who are of pure native American descent, there are immigrant stories in all of our lives. But I suspect not many of us know those stories. Young people are not always interested in the distant past and by the time they are, it is too late to ask anyone who might know.  Neither of my grandmothers nor the grandfather I knew told me anything at all about their childhoods, much less about their parents or grandparents or how they came to be Americans.

Even genealogical research usually reveals only factual fragments. Except for the recent arrivals or the lucky ones with a long line of talkative grandparents or a stash of letters or diaries, the stories remain  untold. That’s another reason The Immigrant  is so special.

5 thoughts on “The Immigrant, An American Musical, Tells the Story of How One Family Became Americans

  1. An amazing moment occurred after the last performance. Both Rita’s mother and Steven’s father attended the show. Rita’s mother had come from Russia to the United States when Rita was just a little girl. Stevens father’s family came from Russia earlier, fleeing the pogroms of the Czar. .

    Now, in composing the music, Steven had incorporated a Russian lullaby he remembered his father singing. It appears as a theme throughout the underscoring Rita’s mother recognized the melody and mentioned this to Steven’s father who explained that his grandmother sang this lullaby to him when he was a child. ”But my family is all gone. . . .” “No,” Rita’s mother replied, gesturing toward Steven, they are not all gone, and your grandmother was here in this very theater through the music. “

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  2. More interesting immigrant stories. My friend Frederique, who is French and is married to a Russian, came to see The Immigrant a few weeks ago. She loved it. She is also my facebook friend, so when I shared the Hints and Echoes post about The Immigrant she came to your blog to read it. While she was here visiting Hints and Echoes she looked at your bio and saw that you and Herb had written One Potato, Two Potato. She had purchased a copy years ago because she had a young daughter and they had recently come to live in the United States and she wanted to learn and know about the children’s games and folklore.

    Last night, we hosted a birthday party for a friend and Frederique told this story to the group. Well, of course you know what happened! All the women started doing the hand clapping rhymes and it was so much fun! They were remembering their childhood through these rhymes and remembering their past. I pointed out that some of these rhymes are very, very old, i.e. Ring around the Rosie from days of the Black Plague. We all made the connection that these rhymes were our history. Our cultural history passed down through our children.

    One woman said, “They have tried to clean them up, you know. They have changed the lyrics to Rock a bye, Baby so it isn’t so violent.” I said that I didn’t know who “they” were, but I was certain “they” could not destroy our children’s cultural heritage. I sure hope I’m right.

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