Cooper, Breaker & Boone - Three Stars Get 'Lost'
To kick off African American Heritage Month (formerly known as Black History Month), City Center's Encores! is presenting a concert of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's Lost in the Stars, the 1949 musical adaptation of Alan Paton's book Cry, the Beloved Country this weekend. As usual, the cast includes some top Broadway performers--in this case, Tony-winner Chuck Cooper (The Life and Caroline or Change), Tony-nominee Daniel Breaker (Passing Strange and Shrek), and Sherry Boone (Marie Christine) all have major roles.
Paton's book, published in the year Apartheid became law in South Africa, follows the troubles of a Black South African family when their son kills a white boy, and the musical follows the same plot closely. "It's a very daring piece of drama," Cooper says. "To talk about apartheid in the '40s was an amazing thing. And it's important to keep these pieces alive, which is the mantra of Encores!-to give these pieces an encore."
Breaker, for his part, was intrigued by Kurt Weill's score. "Whenever I approach things, it's based in music," he says. "I hear the music before I see anything else. And Kurt Weill, who you could consider a modern classical composer, is right up my alley."
Boone says that she was attracted to "the tragedy, to triumph, to the hope, which has come out of the Apartheid system," and finds parallels in the story to the journeys of Winnie and Nelson Mandela during the same time as Lost in the Stars is set. "Mandela obviously had a choice as to what he would say, once he was given his freedom, to the people of South Africa. I really believe he had it in his hands, whether South Africa would become a place where the whites and Blacks could co-exist or whether it would become a bloodbath."
While the musical was written and is set in South Africa in the 1940s, all three performers feel it is still relevant to 2011 America. Its central themes of truth and justice, Cooper says, are part of the human condition. "It's incredibly relevant. Look at Obama!" he adds, drawing parallels to Obama's political crises with Kumalo's crisis of faith and conscience. "What do you do? Very often, there's no correct answer. It's a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. I can't imagine anyone coming to see this play and not being able to think of an example in their life when they were confronted with a bad choice. Which bad choice do I want to take?"
Boone sees the conflicts in the musical, and the steps the characters take towards resolving those conflicts, as similar to the progress being made across ethnic lines in America today. "We must still face that there is so much healing that still needs to take place between Blacks and whites in America," she says. "It's an exciting time, and Lost in the Stars goes right into the eye of race relations today--even though it's set in 1949."
Cooper agrees. "We run the risk of thinking we have arrived, and that all racial issues are solved because we have this landmark," he says. "There are still jails packed with Latino and Black men who have been injustly put there because of a legal system stacked against them. There are racial issues that need lots of attention and focus and work. And it's very important for pieces like this to ask us how far we have come...Whenever you look back, it helps us decide how to go forward."
"We are not living in a world as rough as South Africa in the '40s," Breaker adds, "but we have a long way to go in America, especially if we look at immigration in Arizona and discrimination that we get about gays and lesbians getting married." Looking at the modern world through a classic text, whether it's an ancient Greek tragedy, Shakespeare or a musical from the 1940s, can help shine a light on modern issues, he adds.
"It is an African story, but also a human story," Breaker continues. "It's like, African American Heritage Month is really American Heritage Month. Don't separate the two that much. This play, along with African American Heritage Month, are the same in terms of whether the story is American or global. The themes are global."
In addition to being a notable period piece, Cooper feels that Lost in the Stars is significant as a game-changer in musical theater history. "The musical as we know it from this time to now has undergone a huge amount of change," he says. When mounting a production, the cast and crew will analyze a piece and ask questions about the characters and their motivations. This is a relatively new trend, however. "Very often, those questions were not asked when the play was written." For the most part, musicals today are motivated by dramatic action, but this was relatively uncommon when Lost in the Stars premiered. "It's interesting to bring back a piece like this, juxtaposed against what a modern musical is today. It has relevance because it lets us know where we've come from. And you never want to forget where you've come from."