Coming to America
Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard on their new musical about immigration
New York Public Library
Q: Steerage Song, for Theater Latté Da, is about immigrating through Ellis Island. What inspired this? Your own backgrounds? Titanic?
Peter Rothstein: Initially, we were only focused on musicians who came through Ellis Island. But as I dug in, I was surprised by the wealth of music about the immigrant experience itself.
Q: Would that include Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On?
Q: You’ve arranged 45 songs in 17 languages. What made the cut?
PR: We were drawn to material that’s big either emotionally or politically. I mean, how epic is it to say goodbye to a piece of land or a parent you know you will never see again? There’s one song where a child is singing to the stars from the deck of a ship, “Do you still know me?” That’s bigger than anything I’ve encountered in my life.
Q: Did you dig into your own roots?
Dan Chouinard: Genealogy has long been an interest of mine, and I’ve been to Quebec to meet relatives from my dad’s family. But none of them came through Ellis Island.
PR: I’m three-fourths Irish and grew up singing Irish songs. But Dan said, “We can’t have all Irish music.”
DC: True. Though there are no French songs, my people will be sorry to see.
Q: Have our attitudes toward immigration evolved over time?
PR: It was surprising to discover such similarities between then and now. We found an old cartoon of the Statue of Liberty snubbing her nose at immigrants; it’s like something you would see in the New Yorker today.
Q: If you were coming to America then, would you have traveled in steerage—where the fun was—or in style up top?
PR: We’re both going to say the same thing.
DC: I may be a musician, but I like a good night’s sleep. So yeah, definitely up top.
Steerage Song, by Theatre Latté Da, runs June 2 to 5 at the Fitzgerald Theater. latteda.org