LIBERTY: Not Just for the Fourth of July


One of the most potent moments in RAGS, the woefully underappreciated 1986 musical, occurs at the end of the first song.

We’ve witnessed a boatload of 19th century immigrants make a 5,000-mile journey, debark on Ellis Island and find for one reason or another that they won’t be allowed into this country.

They’re immediately marched back onto the ship on which they came. Now they’ll endure another 5,000-mile journey only to be back where they started from.

Believe it or not, such a fate almost happened to The Statue of Liberty.

Many of us probably blithely assume that America was thrilled with the exorbitant and glorious gift that France gave us to celebrate our centennial. Not so fast:Jon Goldstein, a composer and his librettist-lyricist sister,Dana Leslie Goldstein now tell in their excellent musical LIBERTY that we almost didn’t have a Statue of Liberty illuminating New York Harbor. The neoclassical sculpture was almost returned to France.

Broadway saw a musical on this subject in 1949, when such illustrious talents as Irving Berlin, Moss Hart and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, Robert E. Sherwood created a musical MISS LIBERTY. Alas, it was a mighty dull affair. Too bad the trio didn’t see the inherent drama in the story that the Goldstein siblings seemed to have easily grasped.

Yes, the French gave us Lady Liberty but they assumed that we’d provide the pedestal. President Grover Cleveland was asked to approve the appropriation of funds -$50,000, analogous to $1.5 million today–and vetoed the bill. (To be fair, the country was enduring some hard economic times.)

Without a pedestal, the statue metaphorically didn’t have a leg to stand on. And although we all know that the pedestal was built and The Statue of Liberty has lived happily ever after, the way she got it is a fascinating story of resiliency as well as a tribute to the common man.

Even that galvanizing tale, however, wouldn’t much matter if the Goldsteins hadn’t delivered solid music and lyrics. True, having the Statue become a character and actually speak is a little strange at first. But we do get used to the device and even begin to feel for the Statue who’s rejected time and time again by officials and bureaucracy. America’s lack of enthusiasm shocks her to say in a mystified voice “I thought they’d put me on a pedestal.”

Someone more sympathetic is Emma Lazarus, the author of the sonnet whose most famous part is “Give me your tired, your poor.” After Irving Berlin set the work’s final five lines to music as his eleven o’clock number, he stated time and time again that he fully believed it would take its place next to his “God Bless America” as one of this country’s great anthems. That never happened, probably because his melody was a bit on the dreary side. The Goldsteins’ attempt with Lazarus’ poem is far more tuneful and successful.

Tourists and New Yorker alike get another bonus from LIBERTY because of its matinee-heavy playing schedule. Having performances on Mondays at two p.m. and Thursdays at noon and three p.m. allow avid theatergoers to see LIBERTY without taking up a time slot that they’d reserved for a Broadway show. Other performances are Sundays at two and five p.m., Tuesdays at seven p.m. and Wednesdays at three and seven p.m.

What? No Friday or Saturday performances? You’ll fully understand why as you saunter into 42 West, which is a trendy nightclub on weekends. As a result, armless plastic scoop-seat chairs will have to serve as your pedestal but the 80-minute running time won’t overtax your gluteus maximus. Compensating for all that, especially on a hot summer’s day is 42 West’s air-conditioning which is powerful and crisp.

No one can say for sure if the authors knew that immigration would be such a hot topic when they wrote LIBERTY. Whatever the case, the show does remind us that the vast majority of us are children of immigrants and we’re very lucky that these pioneers were brave enough to make the trip.

There’s some talk about the melting pot and the way that expert director Evan Pappas has cast his leading lady inadvertently makes a comment on America’s ability to mix-and-match. For Miss Liberty is played by Miss Abigail Shapiro who has the quintessential WASP first name matched with a most famous Jewish surname.

There’s a belief that those who come from two different ethnic backgrounds often profit from both cultures. That could very well be the case with this pre-teen. I’ve never heard a youngster hit high notes with such ease. She’s the most remarkable in a most remarkable cast.

Perhaps best of all, LIBERTY makes you hanker to take a trip to the Statue of Liberty and appreciate its splendors and pay tribute to the thousands who sacrificed to keep it here. That’s a fine way to spend your time, of course, but go to the musical first.