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Liberty: A Monumental New Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 4, 2016

Abigail Shapiro, Brandon Andrus, and the cast
Photo by Russ Rowland

One glance at the Statue of Liberty and you instantly understand everything that she, and ostensibly the United States, stands for. That's true of all the best symbols: They make their meaning felt without the need for endless elucidation or tongue-clicking lectures. Yet you get far too many of both in Liberty: A Monumental New Musical, which just opened at 42West.

Although this show by Jon and Dana Leslie Goldstein (the former wrote the music, the latter the book and lyrics), based on their own children's play (written with Robert Bruce McIntosh) Lady of Copper, purports to tell the story of how "Liberty Enlightening the World" found its home on these shores, ultimately it has its sights set much lower. The two works have been kicking around for years, long before Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, but Liberty plays like a bored and boring repudiation of a one-dimensional interpretation of his "America first" rhetoric, with any genuine history, at best, an afterthought.

The gimmick here is that the Statue is played by a young girl (Abigail Shapiro), called Liberty, who's sent to the U.S. by her French creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (Ryan Duncan) to occupy a pedestal the Americans will build for her. But anti-immigrant sentiment, stoked by the greasy politician Francis A. Walker (Brandon Andrus) and his sniffing benefactor, Regina Schuyler (Tina Stafford), is interfering with the fundraising. Will Liberty ever have a place to stand in the land of the free and the home of the brave?

That we already know the answer shouldn't matter, but it does because the tale is told without a drop of the gusto or originality it would need to overcome its innate narrative handicap. Liberty, a saint awaiting canonization, reminds everyone who will listen (and many who won't) of the American ideals—which here are defined as giving her money—and fights back against both the scheming Walker and the immigrant-turned-magnate Joseph Pulitzer (Mark Aldrich), the latter of whom has a heart and a newspaper front page just primed for softening.

But because Liberty isn't really a character—and certainly isn't a person—her quest is as meaningless as it is preachy, which is to say quite a lot. And given the stiff posture, unyielding facial expressions, and stilted singing voice Shapiro brings to the part, she's not even especially likable. (She is, however, utterly convincing as a statue.) There's no point to any of this except for Liberty to teach and for us to listen, which is made harder still by the lessons being not that much fun. The pleas for tolerance toward the Native Americans (represented by itinerant laborer James Goldleaf, played by Duncan) and post-Civil War blacks (only one example is seen, played with tangible sensitivity by C. Mingo Long) are flat enough; the songs fall short of that mark.

To pick just a few: "We Had It Worse" is a joyless, witless competition song in which an Irish foreman named McKay (Aldrich) and a Russian peddler named (Moscowitz) whine about who's had the harder life ("We took only what we could carry in our pockets," McKay brags; "Well, we didn't even have pockets"). "The Other Half" outlines the cold war between the rich (read: white) Americans and the growing immigrant hordes they want kept away. Walker's big number, "America for the Americans," highlights his inherent hypocrisy, but of course exposes no soul. ("Your family came here from somewhere else, Mr. Walker," Liberty says. "They were immigrants themselves." His response: "When my family came, they were pioneers." Ha ha ha.)

Walker and Schuyler's early duet, "The Charity Tango," is an even more tedious example of deck-stacking, so steeped in melodrama it's surprising that about all that director Evan Pappas and costume designer Debbi Hobson (whose work is otherwise credible) didn't throw at it are two mustaches for the singers to twirl. "Oh, don't look so glum," they sing. "Here's our rule of thumb: Charity begins at home—So go back where you came from!"

The adult actors, who also include Nick DeVito as the token Italian and Emma Rosenthal as an oddly rabble-rousing Emma Lazarus, do what they can, but they're constantly for attention against the writing, the staging, the set (a sprawling LED wall displaying uninspiring projections by Colin Doyle), and even the underscoring (Jeffrey Lodin is credited with "Musical Direction and Arrangements," but the "instruments" ring in as wholly synthesized and lifeless as piped in over the sound system).

Only during one late song do the pieces come together. "The New Colossus" is a musical setting of the real Lazarus's sonnet of the same title, which is now primarily famous for gracing a plaque on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. (Oops, is that a spoiler?) With simple, clear music, and the unadorned poetry of the words shining through the no-frills singing of Rosenthal and Shapiro, it moves you using the traditional and proven musical-theatre methods that the writers otherwise eschew.

So well does it work, in fact, that it renders everything else before it superfluous: Lazarus's interpretation of American values, like the Statue herself, needs no aid to hit you straight in the heart. It does touch your mind, too, if rather unexpectedly: When Walker gets in the way, Pulitzer leads everyday, underappreciated Americans to take up the cause their societal "betters" won't. Given everything else that's in the show, it's bizarre to find this exhortation to not rely on the government to do for you what you can do for yourself. Accidental or not, though, it's a good message that's likely to linger in your memory long after the rest of Liberty has faded from it.

Liberty: A Monumental New Musical
Through August 4
42West, 514 West 42nd Street
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