Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical is a collection of aspirational songs in search of a plot. And character development. This New York Musical Festival offering is a far too safe telling of such an important chapter in American history.
In an effort to break the segregation of interstate buses in the South in the 1960s, groups of blacks and whites rode together to force the issue. In Freedom Riders the brutality these people experienced is more suggested than portrayed. The performance I attended Friday at the Acorn Theatre had several rows of middle schoolers, who were mostly African-American. Before the show started I worried that such young theatergoers would be loud, but the opposite was true. There wasn’t a peep out of them. Had the subject been more forcefully presented, they would have been gasping and calling out about the injustice. Young people are usually unrestrained in expressing their feelings in the theater.
Richard Allen’s book needs more depth and the music and lyrics he wrote with Taran Gray need more variety. I also wonder how clear it was to those young people in the audience that the show was portraying historical characters. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard) I certainly hope they recognized, but I don’t know that they would have learned much about John Lewis (Anthony Chatmon II, right in photo) or Diane Nash (Brynn Williams).
The two-hour show features 16 songs, some of which are reprised, giving a feeling of song after song strung together by a bit of narration, especially in the first act. And the songs more or less sound alike because they follow that I-will-succeed genre of American musical theatre, the ones where people belt out about climbing every mountain, finding their corners of the sky, and trusting that tomorrow is only a day away. One of those songs in a show is rousing, but a whole show of them is too much. I began questioning if I hadn’t already heard that song each time a new one began. We go from having lives that collide but finding hope inside, to not letting anybody hold you down, to keeping your head up to be first in line when your time comes, to getting there step by step with stars in your eyes after dreams take flight, and on and on. Under Whitney White’s direction, nobody seems to get discouraged no matter whether they are beaten or thrown in jail.
Nonviolence was always a part of the mission, but I would like to see the struggle the riders faced in keeping to this pledge. When asked if it was hard to resist the blows delivered by racist white man at a bus terminal (Michael Nigro, photo left) Lewis replies, “It was actually easier than I thought.”
While the riders at times discuss whether to continue, I never felt much of a sense of the terror I’ve read about from the real life civil rights workers in the South. In one scene in a church some apprehension is expressed but I was shocked when I learned a mob of 3,000 was surrounding it. I didn’t feel any of the fear that should have provoked. It was supposedly such a tense situation because King was inside that the National Guard had to be called in.
When Freedom Riders was presented last summer at NYMF as a workshop it earned a Beta Award. This year’s offering is considered a full production but it still resembles a workshop offering. The cast members all have strong voices but the book is in need of much development.
And the generic songs should be more representative of the era. Musically the 60s was a rich time as what was considered “race” music crossed over thanks to Motown and we had some of the best written and performed music ever. Give these songs some soul. Make them sound like black music of the 60s.
I hope the creators of this show will work hard on it. The subject is ripe for a powerful musical. And it’s certainly possible now that it’s had this developmental experience. New York Musical Festival was created to nurture new musicals by giving them an affordable platform to test their work among theatre professionals. Now in its 14th year, NYMF has launched more than 90 shows into productions Off-Broadway, in regional theatres in all 50 states and 24 countries worldwide. Alumni have won many awards, including a Tony and Pulitzer. My organization, Drama Desk, gave it an award in 2013 for its work “creating and nurturing new musical theatre, ensuring the future of this essential art form.”
I will be watching for future performances of a reworked Freedom Riders.