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Musical memorial for a Chicago tragedy

By Bruce Ingram
Libertyville Review, a Chicago Sun-Times publication,
June 26, 2012

Quick: What Chicago disaster claimed the greatest loss of life in the city’s history?

For that matter, which disastrous historical event accounted for the most lives lost in American history, before 9/11?

If you answered the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, sorry; you lose. Please select a parting gift as you exit, ignominiously.

Actually, if you have no idea whatsoever, you’re not alone, strange as that may seem. And that’s part of the warp and woof of the world premiere of “Eastland: A New Musical,” running through July 29 in Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre. Northwestern University professor Amanda Dehnert directs the debut.

“Most people I know in Chicago, even if they were born here and have lived here for 50 or 75 years, have not heard of the Eastland disaster,” said Evanston’s Andy White, a founding member of Lookingglass, the company’s longtime artistic director and writer/lyricist of “Eastland.” “It’s a forgotten event, and that makes it all the more poignant.”

The Eastland what, you may be asking? Well, here are the basic facts.

Family holiday

On July 24, 1915, the SS Eastland, along with two other ships, was chartered to take employees of the Western Electric company, many of them Czech immigrants, to a picnic in Michigan City. It was quite an event for many of them, who couldn’t ordinarily afford a holiday, so many entire families crowded onto the ship.

Packed to capacity, and overburdened with the weight of lifeboats legislated after the Titanic disaster, the Eastland rolled away from the wharf on the Chicago river and submerged on its side. Though the Eastland was only 20 feet away from the river bank, 844 people died — drowned or crushed by falling furniture.

“Everyone knows about the Titanic,” White said. “Everybody knows about the Great Fire. What does it mean that this disaster, which, was the worst in terms of mortality on American soil, until recently, is almost completely forgotten?”

White himself, a Los Angeles native and Northwestern University grad, had never heard of the Eastland, until he saw a WTTW-TV documentary on the event (by Evanston’s Harvey Moshman) and then read Evanston author Jay Bonansinga’s 2005 book The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy.

“Jay’s book really pulled me into the story,” White said. “He’s such a terrific writer and he turned this forgotten historical event into a kind of thriller.”

At that time, he was involved in the creation of Lookingglass’s adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, featuring an original score based on early 20th-century folk music by Ben Sussman and Andre Pleuss, who he subsequently asked to score “Eastland.”

“So, the music of that era was already in my head,” White said. “And I knew there was a band on the Eastland that had been hired to play during the excursion. As a result, the more I thought about the story, the more it began to take shape as a musical.”

Not a musical in the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway sense of the term, he hastened to add. Rather, he described “Eastland” as “a dramatic sonic event incorporating music and sound design.”

Mostly sung

“It could almost be described as an opera in the sense that it is sung almost entirely, from start to finish,” he said. “Most of the music is lovely and very pleasing to the ear, but it’s also appropriate that there would be minor chords and major dissonance when the disaster occurs.”

“At that point, the sound design becomes truly horrifying,” he added, with a laugh. “In a good way, of course.”

Bonansinga, who certainly knows his way around horror, with a best-selling prequel to AMC’s hit “Walking Dead” series to his credit, in addition to numerous original shockers, said he was similarly impressed when he saw an early concert version of the musical.

“It gets completely inside the powerful emotions that must have been stirred up by this event,” he said. “For the victims on board as well as the people in Chicago at the time. “It’s an incredible, almost dreamlike, impressionistic tapestry of emotion, drama and song.

“I think people are going to be taken by surprise at how powerful it is.”

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