A guest blog entry from Ben Sussman, writer of Eastland to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.
Years back, when I first heard Andy White’s pitch for Eastland, I was incredulous. “Another sinking ship musical? Are you kidding me?” The Titanic story has already been romanticized for decades, because it has all the elements of a tabloid headline: fabulously wealthy people, tremendous hubris, followed by karmic retribution.
But the Eastland story is almost exactly the opposite. While the time period is the same (1915), here we have a bunch of low-income, blue collar immigrants boarding a boat for their corporate summer picnic. Before the ship even leaves the dock, it capsizes and more than 800 people drown. There is brief media attention, then silence. This was the worst boating disaster in U.S. history and to this day almost nobody has heard of it.
And so Andy approaches his script thoughtfully: if such a tragedy is so easily forgotten, what does that mean about the value of these people’s lives? Does their socioeconomic status make them less important? What is the value of anyone’s life? And are we really in control of our path to the extent that we think we are?
Things shift, they change
That’s life, it rearranges
And speaking of unexpected twists — I recently discovered that this story is directly relevant to my own. Through genealogical research and interviews, I learned that my own great grandfather was yet another employee set to board the Eastland. He arrived a bit late, after the boat had already turned over. If he had showed up 20 minutes earlier, would I even be here to help tell the story?
Needless to say, it was an intense and thrilling experience bringing this show into a full production at Lookingglass Theatre last year. And now the excitement has returned again as we begin to make cuts, dust off the score, and discuss casting options for the NAMT production. We can’t wait to spin this tale with new voices, to an even larger audience.