By Rob Hartmann
Mother Jones and the Children’s Crusade, with book, music and lyrics by Cheryl E. Kemeny, is currently in rehearsal for its run as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The show focuses on turn of the century labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, as she leads a march of mill children from Philadelphia to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in New York, protesting child labor conditions — young children were routinely injured while they worked in mines and mills for starvation wages.
The NYMF production stars Lynne Wintersteller, perhaps best known for her iconic performance in Maltby & Shire’s Closer Than Ever; the cast also features two-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesus.
I spoke with Benjamin Edward Simpson, an actor who stepped into the role of producer to bring Mother Jones to New York, and also with director Michelle Tattenbaum (who directed Nobody Loves You at Second Stage and the Old Globe.)
ROB HARTMANN: Ben — I understand that you were actually in this show when you were a kid?
BEN SIMPSON: It’s kind of a crazy story how it all started. So the author, Cheryl Kemeny, runs a not for profit children’s performing arts center in Norwalk Connecticut, the Crystal Theatre. So, growing up, instead of doing Annie or Bye Bye Birdie, you’re doing one of these original musicals that she writes. And they’re written for a cast of sixty so everyone has a part. So this show was one of the shows I just signed up for as a kid. Robin de Jesus was in it as a kid as well.
These days, I’m primarily an actor — I was in between shows and I just kept thinking about this show, and how it’s really relevant to what’s going on in the world today.
MICHELLE TATTENBAUM: That was one of the things about the script that I really responded to — this feeling of utter timeliness. I think the Gilded Age is on everyone’s mind right now, and I think that is very telling. To have the chance to tell a story from that era — well really, it’s a plea for trying to change things for the better. That we can’t just sit by. That, to me, is the universal message that needs to be heard right now.
I feel this incredible sense of fatalism about how things are right now, in terms of income inequality, in terms of the ways in which our society is completely unsupportive of families. The indignities of that are everywhere and daily — trying to operate in a world where you need to have both parents in a family working full time, or otherwise you can’t afford to have a safe and comfortable life. And yet at every turn the culture is not set up to support that.
BS: I always thought Mother Jones was Cheryl’s best material — I’ve grown up loving big Broadway musicals like Ragtime and Parade, and I thought that this show had that kind of epic story. It’s a star vehicle, but it also has the kids — they’re the heart of this story. I would tell anyone to come see it, whether you’re ten or seventy five.
MT: It was originally written to be performed by kids — but, while I think it’s still quite suitable for a family audience, it’s not a “kid’s show.” We’re not approaching it in that way. We’re approaching it with a greater level of complexity and sophistication. Obviously, people can bring their kids — there are four kids in it — but we’re not approaching it in a “family theater” kind of way.
RH: And you have Lynne Wintersteller as Mother Jones.
BS: Lynne Wintersteller is so amazing. She’s gone through this script and score so thoroughly, finding all the dimensions of the character. The truth of the matter is that Mother Jones wasn’t always likeable. Cheryl has tried to stay true to that, really showing all her flaws. Lynne sounds amazing — she’s so game for anything. What’s exciting is, she’s really inspiring some of the changes we’ve made. We’re tailoring it to her — she is our Mother Jones.
MT: Cheryl is incredibly open — she’s a very smart writer. She’s written a lot of shows, so she’s not precious about any of it. She brings a lot of experience and maturity to the table. She’s a pragmatist.
BS: Cheryl’s been staring at this piece for years and years. And I’ve been attached to it for so long that I thought it was really important to have Michelle, who could be fresh set of eyes on the show. On the first day, she gave us all a little history lesson about the world of this show. Like, “I’m wearing this new pair of pants — these were made in some factory by some person who has a story – and that’s the story we’re telling.” All her detailed research and her excitement for the piece — she’s just so invested, it gets everyone excited.
MT: I talked about individualism, and how deeply ingrained this idea is — that everything that happens to you is based on your worth as an individual. And if you work hard enough, and if you’re a worthy enough person, then you will get ahead. And nothing has anything to do with the societal structures we’re operating in or the water we’re swimming in or the air we’re breathing in, it’s all your personal worth. I talked about that, and laissez faire economics and social Darwinism (laughs.) Those are my three things. And I wanted to talk about Calvinism, because I feel it really goes all the way back to the Calvinistic attitudes of the Puritan and the other folks who founded this country — that sort of judgment — “you deserve what you got” —it feels so pervasive, and we don’t even talk about it.
RH: How are rehearsals going?
BS: We’re just taking it day by day. Cheryl never had this dream to be a big Broadway composer or anything — we were actually talking about this in the car. She used to perform, and traveled the world with her sister, singing. And she found this calling, you know, teaching and composing — and she never cared about the glitz and glamor. But now that we’re getting a taste of working with Lynne Wintersteller and Michelle and people who are challenging her creatively, I think it’s just incredibly exciting. And the piece is only getting stronger and stronger.
RH: And you’ve got Robin de Jesus in the cast.
BS: We’re really good friends — he’s just the sweetest guy. He’s at a point in his career where he just goes from job to job to job, but he really made sure that he could clear his schedule to do this. For him to turn down these big movie auditions and these big readings and workshops that he could easily have been doing — that’s such a big thing. He said, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the credit, it’s about honoring the woman that gave him his start. I mean, Cheryl got him the audition for Camp, where his career took off. So it’s like coming full circle for him, and for me.
Mother Jones and the Children’s Crusade. www.motherjonesmusical.com
Book, music & lyrics by Cheryl E. Kemeny. Directed by Michelle Tattenbaum. Music direction by Micah Young. Choreography by Clare Cook. Produced by Benjamin Simpson and The Crystal Theatre, Inc.
Featuring Lynne Wintersteller, Frenie Acoba, Tessa Grady, Robin de Jesus, Lizzie Klemperer, Lulu Lloyd, Zachary Mackiewicz, Robert Mammana, Johnny Marx, Grace Matwijec, Marissa Miller, and Kevin Reed.
For tickets, www.nymf.org. Performances at PTC Performance Space, 555 W. 42nd St. Thursday, July 17 at 8:00 pm; Saturday, July 19 at 1:00 pm; Sunday, July 20 at 12:00 pm; Monday, July 21 at 1:00 pm; Thursday, July 24 at 9:00 pm.