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'Eastland: A New Musical': Lives lost on the Eastland, and what they meant

By Doug George, June 7, 2012

(Original Chicago Tribune story)

Even some lifelong Chicagoans haven't heard of the Eastland disaster.

On July 24, 1915, more than 2,500 passengers had boarded the S.S. Eastland on the Chicago River, bound for a company picnic in Michigan City, Ind., organized by the Western Electric Co. The ship listed, then rolled over at the dock. A total of 844 people died, just yards from shore, many of them families trapped inside. It would be the largest maritime loss of life on the Great Lakes, with many times more lives lost than during the Chicago Fire.

"Eastland: A New Musical" is now in previews at the Lookingglass Theatre on Michigan Avenue, a premiere written by company artistic director Andrew White, music by Ben Sussman and Andre Pluess, and directed by Amanda Dehnert.

This is not a musical in many peoples' sense of the word, White said in a recent interview. "There are no big dance numbers."

The music leans toward the somber, with a folk-influenced sound. White wanted to make it a musical in the first place because he "could tell these stories in verse," he said, in a way that would be just too hard in a straight play.

"Eastland" is inspired in part by the book "The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy" (Citadel, 2004) by Jay Bonansinga. It follows the stories of three characters — two as fictional accounts of the experiences of true-life teenagers, the third of a mother who is a composite of several people.

"Of course, what we didn't want to do was subject our audiences to 90 minutes of grief," White said. The musical is historically accurate, he said, and it depicts, in a way, the capsizing itself.

"But it's just as much, maybe more so, a meditation on mortality," he said. "What do we do with the time we have?"

In the course of writing "Eastland," White said he stood at the spot on Clark Street and the river near where the disaster took place and asked passersby if they had seen a commemorative plaque in place there, or had heard of the Eastland. Most of them said they hadn't. "What does it mean that no one has heard of the Eastland?" White asks. "Are these lives worth any less than those lost on the Titanic?"

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