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Lookingglass delves into Chicago’s Eastland disaster via new musical

By Hedy Weiss
Chicago Sun-Times,
June 13, 2012

On the morning of July 24, 1915, just three years after the mighty Titanic met its stunning fate in the North Atlantic and left 1,541 people dead, a far less famous vessel, the S.S. Eastland, rolled over on its side while still docked on the banks of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle Streets.

The Eastland was filled to bursting with 2,572 people — one of three boats chartered by the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Ill., (the gargantuan early manufacturing arm of AT & T), to carry its employees, many of them immigrants, to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. This much-anticipated outing turned into a catastrophe as 848 people perished as a result of the sudden rush of water, and the crushing impact of heavy furniture listing on the upended boat.

The tragedy of the S. S. Eastland would go down in the record books as the greatest disaster in Great Lakes maritime history. Yet even most Chicagoans would be hard-pressed to recount its story in any detail. For a variety of reasons, it simply failed to find a place in the popular imagination and has remained a local disaster.

But now, well after the story of the Titanic was turned into a Broadway musical, and more notably, into that blockbuster 1997 film, Lookingglass Theatre is attempting to bring a Chicago story into the spotlight with “Eastland: A New Musical.”

Written by the company’s artistic director, Andrew White, it features a score by Ben Sussman and Andre Pluess (the team behind the musical “Winesburg, Ohio,” which debuted at Steppenwolf in 2002), and direction by Amanda Dehnert, an assistant professor of theater at Northwestern University.

It was while working as an actor in “Winesburg, Ohio” that White began reading The Sinking of the Eastland: America’s Forgotten Tragedy, by Jay Bonansinga, an Evanston-based writer who teaches at both Northwestern and DePaul (and who, as it happens, sends his kids to the same school as White’s now attend).

“Jay is best known as a writer of thrillers, and I think that’s what made his book such a page-turner, even though it’s a terrific work of history, too,” said White. “Nearly three times more people died on the Eastland than in the Great Chicago Fire. And up until the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, it was probably the worst disaster on our own soil. So one of the things I began thinking about was this: Why do we know so much about some events and so little about others? The book also talks about the band that was on board the Eastland, and that got me thinking of the musical possibilities of the story.”

The S.S. Eastland was not designed to ferry passengers. Commissioned in 1902, it was known to have design flaws from the start (it was dubbed “a tender ship” and said to be top-heavy). But it was used primarily as a freighter and dubbed “ The Speed Queen of the Great Lakes” because it carried produce to markets at high speed. Ironically, the year before the disaster it was outfitted with lifeboats which made it even more top-heavy.

“The other negative changes made at that time were the replacement of rotting wooden decks with more weighty concrete,” said White. “And then there was the fact that on this trip the ship was loaded with more than 2,500 people, when it had never carried more than 1,500.”

“But I want to be clear about this,” said White. “This show is no docudrama. It’s a very non-literal version of the story — much in the vein of ‘Winesburg, Ohio.’ I began writing it in pretty dense poetic form that was eventually thinned out and shaped so that my long arias could become the lyrics for a mostly sung-through musical.”

White also knew from the start that the show would be “heavily internalized” — something of a ghost story — with three characters at its core.

“One of those characters is a 14-year-old girl who was trapped under the hull for 14 hours but survived,” said White. “And as it happens, that girl’s granddaughter is alive, and even came to see a concert version of the show we did last year. Another real-life character is a young man who heard about the Eastland calamity, raced over to the site, and dove into the water all day to bring up bodies.”

“So, what about the crew of the Eastland?,” I asked White, recalling the shocking behavior of the cruise ship captain in the recent disaster off the coast of Italy.

“An interesting figure,” he replied. “When the boat tipped over he managed to get to the hull without getting his shoes wet ­— and while people in the water were dying. He later said he didn’t want the hull cut open in an attempt to reach those inside because he thought the torches they used would ignite the boat. And he refused to be the scapegoat in the civil and criminal trials.”

Dan Ostling (who designed the great ship set for Lookingglass’ production of “Argonautika”), has devised a set for “Eastland” that, according to White, is “more akin to a sort of claustrophobic revival tent ideal for storytelling that an actual ship.”

As for the music, Michael Smith, the veteran folk singer, guitarist and songwriter, will play Captain Pedersen and others, with a number of the actors doubling as musicians and vice versa.

Said Pluess, who describes “Eastland” as a mix of musical, chamber opera and dark, dramatic song cycle: “Early on, Ben [who has three kids and a day job running the Chicago programming office of Google] and I [Pluess is a full-time sound designer and composer] listened to music of the period — everything from jug bands, to ragtime to popular parlor songs. But while we wanted an echo of that sound we decided we also didn’t want the score to be confined to a period vibe. We are truly lucky that Amanda [Dehnert, the director] also happens to be a superb pianist and gifted choral arranger, and that the actors, including Erik Hellman — a terrific musician who plays the banjo and mandolin — can play instruments. And we have a core of five musicians who play everything from guitar, piano and upright bass to accordion.”

For White, the crucial motif at work in all this concerns “the tipping point in life.”

“It is that very difficult-to-define moment when you sense things have gone too far,” he said. “And it can relate to anything from a job, to a relationship.”

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