Marked out by only a sandwich board on a street in Downtown New York, Liberty the Musical is showing at 42 West. Liberty is an American history musical that tells the story of the people who paid for the base of the Statue of Liberty: the regular people of New York, who offered what cents they could spare. While it opens to the tone of a light-hearted musical comedy, the piece builds unexpectedly to intensely moving heights. As the piece neared its conclusion, silent tears could be seen on the faces of the audience members, and sniffs heard throughout the room.
Liberty tells its story by personifying the statue as a young girl (played by Abigail Shapiro). She insists, “I need public assistance” to the elite of New York (Francis A. Walker and Regina Schulyer, played by Brandon Andrus and Tina Stafford respectively) who voice their refusal in “The Charity Tango”, a light-hearted satire on the immigrant-fearing, welfare-denying politicians of today. Liberty’s contemporary political messages fit snugly into its historical narrative. From the insistence to Walker that “you can’t put up a wall” (a possible Trump reference) to Walker’s smug separation between being a descendant of ‘pioneers’ rather than ‘immigrants’ (an echo of the privilege some people have of calling themselves ‘expats’ rather than ‘immigrants’), such references work because they follow logically from the ideals of the play. Liberty insists she wants to stand for the poorest, for those who need something – even if right now they have nothing to offer in return.
The eighty-minute show could have become a display of bland idealism, if not for the stirring and complex musical number “More” in which Samuel Ferguson (C. Mingo Long), son of a slave in Georgia, insists to Liberty “you gotta do more”. He artfully struggles to express a history that is personal, and in many ways unknowable to those unconnected, and Liberty attempts to understand and incorporate the history of slavery into what ‘Liberty’ in America means. Long’s performance is superb, and resulted in the most noticeable audience tears in the show, reflecting those on Long’s own face.
While it doesn’t have a complex overarching plot, Liberty incorporates the narratives of many New York immigrants into the tale. The narratives span the aforementioned “More” to the comedic “We Had It Worse”, a duet echoing the comedy of Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, with lines between the Eastern European Moscowitz (Tina Stafford) and Irish McKay (played by understudy Vincent McCoy) such as “you had a book? We couldn’t even read!” Though these narratives differ in both tone and content, they stay true to the ideals of the show; that the working people of New York matter, and it is for them the Statue of Liberty stands.
The actors perform in front of a screen of LED lights that in the opening and close of the piece display black and white pictures of the people of New York, and throughout the rest of the duration display appropriate backdrops. While useful, the lights have the potential to make looking at the stage for long durations difficult, and may present an accessibility problem. The more emotionally affecting staging moments come at the open and close of the piece. The carving of the statue happens as shadows against a sheet, before revealing Shapiro, the young girl ‘Liberty’, for the first time to the audience. Later, Liberty steps on the shackles of slavery as part of the percussion of the closing numbers, a moment given great emotional weight because of the work put in by Long in “More”.
Though it may need more content lengthen the piece to the Broadway standard, and to further illustrate the dangers posed by the scaremongering politics of Walker and Schulyer, Liberty is a surprisingly effective piece of theatre. It has been working its way into the New York theatre scene since its debut in 2014, and has the potential to go on for far longer.