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Artfully curated by Culturadar

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July 17, 2015

Battling the Statue of Liberty and Illegal Immigration Laws: Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty at NYMF


Many musicals tackle political issues, but few do that while also battling the Statue of Liberty. With a book by Noemi de la Puente, music by David Davila, and lyrics by de la Puente and Davila, the new musical Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) takes on immigration reform through the story of a college student and undocumented immigrant who cannot leave the United States to take a scholarship. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to composer and lyricist David Davila about writing musicals that address politics, how shows like Rent helped change public policy, and his hopes for Manuel….
Culturadar: How much does the musical differ from the true story it's based on?

David Davila: Well, quite a bit. The musical is inspired by the true story of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Princeton student who turned himself in as an undocumented immigrant in order to raise awareness of the struggle that undocumented child immigrants face, but the similarities stop there. Our entire musical takes place in a boxing ring, and illegal immigrants have to go up against the Statue of Liberty in an actual boxing match in order to gain their citizenship. The score is this really cool mix of rock-n-roll, hip-hop, and Latin music. We keep joking that instead of Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty, we should call it Hedwig versus Usnavi!

CR: Where did your interest in illegal immigration come from?

DD: I was actually raised in South Texas on the border of Mexico. My entire life I have been living with the duality of Texas and Mexican cultures, and, living just 10 minutes from the Rio Grande river, many of my friends all through childhood and adolescence were illegal immigrants. Many were completely raised in the United States, though they happened to be born elsewhere. While I was growing up, the border between Texas and Mexico was just a river that in many cases separated cities that were half in the United States and half in Mexico. It was heartbreaking to see the beautiful landscape of the river ruined with an ugly wall built to keep Mexicans out of the country. To me, it’s inhumane to treat immigrants like criminals because they dream of a better life the way that all of our ancestors did.

CR: How do you think musical theater can best address political issues?

DD: Stories in general, not just musicals, are best told through the adversities of characters we fall in love with, so when dealing with big political issues it’s best to show how the issue affects the hero of the story. A friend of mine, [lyricist and bookwriter] Kait Kerrigan, always says that a good musical deals with the macro issues of the world by showing them in a microcosm. In Fiddler on the Roof, we see Jews being forced out of their villages but learn about the history and issues through one man’s journey. In Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty, we see what it’s like to live your entire life hiding from the authorities through our underdog, Manuel. He is smart and yet he’s not allowed to even apply for college because any paper trail could lead to his entire family getting deported.

CR: Do you think musical theater can help change policy?

DD: I think musical theatre can be effective. I was a kid living in a small conservative town in South Texas, and all of a sudden all the political issues of gay rights and AIDS were transported into my living room when I bought the original cast recording of Rent. It was everywhere--it was on the news and in magazines, and every choir or drama kid at my school knew the songs. In many ways, the next generation of adults had already decided back then that the LGBT community would get equal rights.

CR: How do you hope people respond to this piece?

DD: Ideally, we would like Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty performed all over the country. I want productions all over Middle America, the south, and especially the southwest. I can already see the picket lines forming around the productions in Arizona. Our main goal is to entertain people and give them a view into a world that they don’t normally have access to. I hope that they leave the theatre singing the songs but I also hope they realize that our country needs every kind of edge in the market place that it can get and that we can’t afford to lose great minds like Manuel to competing markets in other countries. There’s an act that’s been floating around Washington for the last few years, The DREAM Act, and to me it makes sense to pass it.

CR: What is a moment in the show that you are most looking forward to people seeing on stage?

DD: I can’t wait to hear all of these songs sung live underneath the stage lights with a full band led by my music director, Karl Hedrick, and the crazy choreography that Sidney Erik Wright has [the cast] doing. The ensemble becomes the entire population of New York City throughout much of Jose Zayas’ staging, and it is just riveting, but I’m probably most looking forward to seeing the Statue of Liberty kick some major butt in all of these fight scenes. The fight choreography by Adele Rylands is intense, and Shakina Nayfack, Gil Perez-Abraham, and the rest of the company do all of this intense boxing and dancing while belting high notes. It’s insane.

Manuel Versus The Statue of Liberty at NYMF runs July 21 through 28. Tickets and show times here.

Photos by Shira Friedman.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.

Posted at 12:07 PM

< A Method to His Madness: Michael Laurence’s new play Hamlet in Bed at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater | Main | Revival of Merrily We Roll Along at the Astoria Performing Arts Center >