A Bloomington-Normal native and Broadway veteran has brought his new musical home to help it find its feet through the efforts of the next generation of theater performers.
“Brooklyn’s Bridge” is the latest work from Ray Roderick, who began his Broadway career gamboling across the stage of the Winter Garden Theater as a member of the original Broadway cast of “Cats.” Now he’s invited young theater majors at Illinois State University the opportunity to test their chops and test out his new musical.
Roderick graduated from ISU in 1980 and immediately launched a successful career that included performing on Broadway. Now he’s focusing on directing and writing new material for the musical theater. “Brooklyn’s Bridge” is currently in its second draft. The musical delves into the stories of the people who created the iconic bridge, which opened in May 1883. Getting to that opening proved to be fraught with danger and misadventures, and behind it all was an unsung woman, said Roderick.
“To some extent, it is about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. But really what it was about is a remarkable woman. The story is percolating to the surface more and more, which makes me very happy. I ran into the story about 15 to 20 years ago, and I thought the story needed to be told. It’s about Emily Roebling, who was the wife of the gentleman who became the chief engineer (on the Brooklyn Bridge project). She’s now credited with finishing the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Descending into the bridge’s caissons resulted in Emily’s husband, Washington Roebling, falling ill to the bends. Confined to his bed for the remainder of the bridge project, Washington relied upon Emily to guide the construction. Washington temporarily lost his sight and his hearing. Roderick’s musical explores the devasting blow and how the Roebling’s endured.
“It’s based on truth, but it’s still art. So we connect the dots our way.”
Roderick penned the book and lyrics of “Brooklyn’s Bridge.” His collaborator, Joseph Baker, composed the music. Roderick described the music as eclectic.
“It's kind of inspired by classical music of the era and beyond. It has an American classical inspiration, Samuel Barber a little bit. And it’s rooted in the Irish immigrant groove.”
The Irish and European workers who helped construct the bridge also figure prominently in Roderick’s musical.
“They’re sort of the heart of the show, that immigrant energy,” Roderick explained. “Right from the get-go in this musical, and it stays right through.”
Politics plays a role, too, as the Terror of Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed, looms large in the show.
Though he’s finished writing the musical, it’s really not done, said Roderick. Hearing the musical performed is part of the editorial process.
“I’d like to build a better show, which I think we are. I’ll learn about the show, and it may even take me seeing the performance. I’m sure I’ll get input and reaction from the audience about the clarity of the storytelling. And do certain things belong in the show? Certain ideas that I always loved years ago, but maybe they don’t belong in the show anymore. So you have to cut that stuff. Mainly, what are the relationships between these characters and how do they drive each other.”
Hearing the show in performance brings clarity to the production.
“This is the first time we’ve gotten the show, in some way, on its feet. I’ve done readings of it. This is what I would call a second draft of the show. I’ve done many, many first drafts that I kept tweaking. Everything was done and we did readings of that version. And then I knew it needed more and I set it away for a little while, maybe about a year, and then came back at it with a whole new point of view. And that gave us this second draft, which we’re continuing to work on here, as well. I feel like this is the one that deserves to be on its feet. I’m very proud of it.”
Putting “Brooklyn’s Bridge” on its feet are the current crop of ISU theater students. Roderick is impressed with their efforts.
“They’re so quick,” he enthused. “I’m used to doing a rehearsal and coming back the next day and basically have to remind everybody what we did. And after the first rehearsal, they were already better than we had left them. And it’s been that way every day.”
Roderick’s time back in his hometown and alma mater proves that, yes, you can indeed go home again.
“This has been unbelievable. I’m emotional about it. If I talk about it I might break down with joy. The people at ISU have been unbelievably supportive, excited and trying to find this balance of ‘let’s help build a show, a brand-new work and how does this make a better experience and opportunity for our students.’ And that’s what’s happened here. It’s just fantastic, the collaboration. It’s so refreshing. It’s all about the play, it’s all about the work. That’s how it ought to be. It’s a joy!”
There’s a free performance of “Brooklyn’s Bridge” at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m.
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