Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017...1:04 pm

Sweet Land: Minnesota on the stage

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Musical at Great American History Theatre evokes Fiddler on the Roof


Throughout the history of the Jewish diaspora, our people know what it is to be “the other.” Right now in our country and in many parts of Europe, “the other” is also considered to be the “enemy.”

Ann Michels and Michael Gruber in Sweet Land, the Musical. (Photo: Rick Spaulding)

It is most fitting, then, that St. Paul’s Great American History Theatre is presenting a new musical play, Sweet Land, The Musical (playing through May 28) that addresses both of these issues, but in a context that is very Minnesotan.

This play is based on Ali Selim’s 2005 film of the same name, which was adapted from Minnesota writer Will Weaver’s short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat.” Its story is one that most Minnesotans — Jewish and non-Jewish — know in one form or another.

For playwright/director Perrin Post, it evoked stories told her by her Finnish grandparents, and inspired her to reach out to Selim and Weaver. She eventually received their permission and blessing to adapt Sweet Land into a musical stage-play.

Post’s script was eventually expanded by another local playwright, Laurie Flanigan Hegge, who artfully and soulfully wrote the show’s lyrics. The play takes on a Jewish flavor when Hegge’s lyrics are laid on top of the melodic compositions of Dina Maccabee and the arrangements of Robert Elhai.

Maccabee (no relation to the local family of that surname) is a native of the San Francisco area and received her musical training at the University of Michigan Music School and Wesleyan University.

Maccabee’s Jewish credentials are just as impressive as her academic ones: She was Bat Mitzva at Bnai Shalom in Walnut Creek and worked at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica, Camp Ramah in Ojai, and the Brandeis Bar-Din Institute in Simi Valley.

Her professional/musical activities connected her to Mark Orton who had composed the music for the Sweet Land movie. He recommended Maccabee to Perrin to put Hegge’s lyrics into tune.

Maccabee says, “I wanted to stay true to the aesthetic of the film and its pastoral quality, and its time and place. I listened to lots of Norwegian folk music that the characters might have brought with them!” She adds, “For me, I used to play a lot of klezmer music and I think that music has a kind of theatricality that has become part of my musical vocabulary. I’d play the music for life-cycle events and that’s what happening in this play.”

Robert Elhai, who arranged the songs and dances for the sizeable instrumental ensemble, has a fabled curriculum vita, including a Tony Award nomination for the stage version of The Lion King. Among his earliest work, however, is a concert piece for guitar and violin, written for cousin’s wedding, based on “Erev shel Shoshanim.” This is not a surprise, since the Elhai family has strong Sephardic roots in Greece, including several rabbis. After a peripatetic childhood and youth, he’s called Minneapolis home for over twenty years and can be found at Temple Israel from time to time.

The Twin Cities theater world is small, and Elhai heard about the project from Hegge. He went to a presentation and talked to her about expanding Dina’s music. “I tried to be modest, but I knew I was perfect for this play!” he explains. “Dina brought a feeling and understanding to the show that has a darkness hanging over it like the pogrom in Fiddler. My skills were perfectly adapted to expand the core song and make it into an orchestrated arrangement.”

This is a wonderful story, and the music takes it to a higher level of entertainment art. Hegge, Maccabee, and Elhai employ numerous genres including folk music, ragtime, waltz, and even modern dance music to move the story together in both time and the characters’ development.

The comparison to Fiddler is apt in more than the music. The play’s setting in Park Rapids, Minn., in 1920 and its premise — acceptance or rejection of the stranger — will strike a chord with many Twin Cities residents whose shopkeeper grandparents were the lone Jews in towns like Detroit Lakes, Brainerd, East Grand Forks, and other small county seats along the path of the Great Northern Railroad. Those who homesteaded on the surrounding farms — often, like Olaf Torvik (Robert Berdahl), immigrants or children of immigrants themselves – feel protective of their “place.” They live in what is essentially a shtetl. Their Lutheran Pastor (Michael Gruber) is their rebbe and what he says, goes!

Into this environment is inserted a stranger to this close-culture: Inge Altenberg (Ann Michels), a girl from Germany sent to Olaf by his parents to be his bride. The pastor, whose son died at the hands of the German enemy in WWI cannot see beyond this fact and places numerous obstacles before the potentially happy couple before allowing the marriage to take place. In Anatevka, it’s a case of Tevye accepting his daughter and her Russian husband.

Sweet Land, The Musical, covers other Minnesotan issues of that time such as organizing farmers into cooperatives that eventually laid the basis for the Farmer-Labor Party. That Post could successfully condense all of this — not to mention dances by Joe Chvala – into less than two hours is remarkable and worthy of praise – and perhaps a Tony Award in the future? This will be a hot ticket about people in a cold climate. Let’s hope they extend the run so that you can say you were there when it all started!

(American Jewish World, 5.5.17)

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