Mother Russia Musical has Carnegie Hall Debut
Text Linda Lippner
On an appropriately snowy, blizzardlike evening in mid-December, a unique musical evening occurred at New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall, in the Weill Hall which is dedicated to theatrical productions. With full orchestra, costumed production numbers and a group of talented singers, Mother Russia, a musical conceived in the mid- 1990’s and already performed in Moscow, made its NYC debut on December 19th at this famous venue.
The two authors of Mother Russia shared their exciting theatrical project with Passport and told us why they saw the first days of the birth of post-communist Russia as such an attractive and irresistible story for a musical.
Winston Shaw, a U.S. diplomat, was serving in Moscow in the early 1990s and makes no excuses about being a hybrid Broadway bound diplomat-writer. He was inspired to write about a Russian/ American love story set in the tense days of the attempted Communist coup in 1991. He mentioned Sophocles, Dante and Benjamin Franklin as role models for his writer/diplomatic career. The “book” or story for the musical evolved over the years and was originally based on a Romeo and Juliet story line and began its life as a dramatic play. Enthusiastic guidance from others in the expat world of Moscow steered him away from this concept and towards a musical production. Finding a composer to work with him on his new project was his next quest and Winston says that:
“…I turned to the church pianist at St. Andrews, the Anglican Church in Moscow, who in turn, told me that he definitely was not a composer but led me to a very interesting lawyer who had just moved to Moscow and had recording equipment in his flat.” Winston then met with this lawyer; “… [At the only] Irish pub in Moscow at the time. He read my script and had me listen to…some recordings of song ideas for my play. We also made a soon-aborted attempt to find an English lyricist in Moscow and then decided it would be easier to learn to write lyrics ourselves, which we managed after writing some very miserable stuff for the first ten months we worked together.”
The “very interesting lawyer” was Andrew J. Wight and the year was 1996. Andrew had just moved to Moscow and was in a similar professional state as Winston, but as a lawyer/composer hybrid. When not practicing law Andrew invested his time in composing music and also performing as a musician of some repute. Andrew relates that: “We used a CD recorded with the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra to get interest (in our production). We had problems getting a theater and an orchestra. The Russian theater people tried to stop us from doing the show because we were foreigners. Tomorrowland (the original title of the original production that Mother Russia is based on) was the first Western musical staged officially in Moscow and they were not happy about it. I went to see Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and he agreed to listen to a CD of the music. After he heard it he helped get us a theater – the Novaya Opera, and an orchestra – after the mayor was involved the problems stopped!! Luzhkov came to the premiere in 1999 and he stayed for the whole show, something he usually does not do. At the end of the show he gave the leading actress flowers and then he and I danced together on the stage to one of the songs,” Wight relates.
The performances in Moscow in 1999 were in Russian and English and the Red Army came to one of the shows – probably invited by Mayor Luzhkov! After the show, Wight and Shaw hired girls to stand outside the theater and do a little market research. One of the comments was “If I was Andrew Lloyd Webber I would give up!” Russian TV covered the Tomorrowland premiere and although still not happy that Westerners had got so much right about the atmosphere in Moscow during the dark days of the early 1990’s, they did acknowledge that audience members had been spotted crying as they left the theater from seeing the events of their recent political past depicted so sensitively.
This correspondent was invited to the New York premiere of Mother Russia and discovered an exciting pre-Broadway tryout. Since the staging was confined to a concert hall venue, there were no sets per se, but rather the full orchestra was arrayed behind the singers and dancers with a series of musical duets and solos. At the back of the stage, photo images of historical events of the times are projected onto the wall for a more realistic view of the atmosphere of the days at hand - 1991 is the year that the Soviet Union was dissolved, while earlier that year Boris Yeltsin defended Gorbachev, the head of state of the USSR, from the communist coup in front of the Russian White House as he famously stood on top of an army tank supported by parts of the army and thousands of Muscovites who demonstrated in the streets demanding that the coup be defeated.
The action of the play takes place during these exciting days and how one family is caught up in these momentous events. Ludmilla, the matriarch of the family sings of her painful memories of the tragedies of the Stalinist era when her husband was taken away on a day in May, never to be seen again as he disappeared into the gulag labor camp system. Her songs are the most poignant and lovely as she remembers her earlier happier days of young love and starting a family before family tragedy struck. Her son Slava is now a father himself and the station manager of the Moscow TV station which may or may not broadcast to the world the street revolution in front of the White House which might just finish the job of bringing down the Communist coup and ultimately the USSR.
...Mother Russia has great potential. A strong cast, a tight director’s hand to keep the storyline moving along and this production could bring a humanistic view of Russia and its recent history to Western theater audiences.
Slava’s daughter, Jenya is a beautiful KGB officer who is falling in love with Steve, a young American CNN correspondent who has recently arrived in Moscow to cover the exciting events, and is being pulled apart emotionally, as she sees her loyalty to the KGB is fractured by the events on the streets of Moscow and her relationship with the young American correspondent. There are also subplots involving the evil KGB agent Tolya who is determined to seduce Jenya away from Steve, plus a tragic revelation about Slava’s youthful betrayals during earlier Communist times.
Mother Russia is full of love songs and rousing chorus and dance numbers that describe the rapidly changing face of Russian life in Moscow in the early 1990’s. One of the funniest production numbers is a chorus line of scantily dressed “Miss KGB” female contestants – all in bright red feathered outfits with black bullet proof vests. Apparently, this is based on a real-life “beauty contest” that the KGB sponsored to show a warmer, friendlier face to the Soviet people whom they mostly dominated by fear, suppression and political murder.
Many of the songs from the earlier Tomorrowland have been incorporated into Mother Russia and more have been added to mix in the musical flavors of romance between the young Russian/ American lovers. The soaring music of the theme song, Mother Russia tops the list of my favorites along with Suddenly, a song of discovering the powerful pull of Steve’s love for Jenya. Go with the Flow is fun and lighthearted ensemble piece as Russians show how they have managed to beat the system throughout their long years of suppression and deprivation under Communism. It is a tribute to the great strength and endurance of the Russian people while “applauding the sense of humor Russians seem to be able to find in the worst of situations,” as composer Wight says.
Some of the audience at Carnegie Hall found themselves tearing up during the evening as all were Russophiles enjoying a night in Moscow while spending their evening in New York City. Most attended a post-theater party at The Russian Tearoom next door where they compared notes on their reaction to Mother Russia. The orchestra got kudos for its full rich sound with beautiful violin solos by Janice Martin, along with the production dance numbers by the Barynya Dance Ensemble, whose members have danced with the Moiseev Dance Company and the Ukrainian National Dance Company. Lead singers Peter Samuel as Tolya, Kate Shindle as Jenya, Kevin Vortmann as Steve, Nat Chandler as Slava and especially inspiring as Ludmilla; Evangelia Kingsley brought the show to inspiring life. The cast members joined the audience at the famous Russian Tearoom and toasted the production with unlimited champagne and Russian appetizers well past midnight.
Mother Russia has great potential and more than one partygoer thought it could be compared to Les Miserables; that huge Broadway and international hit. A strong cast, a tight director’s hand to keep the storyline moving along and this production could bring a humanistic view of Russia and its recent history to Western theater audiences; many who are minimally aware of Russia’s new birth after the end of the USSR. Humanism and hope are the key elements of Wight and Shaw’s Mother Russia – a soaring bid for theatergoer’s attention and all the potential of a great theatrical evening out.
You can go to motherrussiamuscial. com for more details and if you have audio on your computer, listen to some of the great music on the website.