'Steerage Song' tackles the story, music of American immigrants

​Call it an embarrassment of riches.

When Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard sat down to assemble Steerage Song, their musical revue about the American immigrant experience at Ellis Island, they found that they had 80 different pieces of music they wanted to use in the show.

Feedback from workshops showed that while all of this was good, audiences thirsted for more context for the music. So the winnowing began. "We're down to about 40 pieces of music," Rothstein says.

The piece, which runs this weekend at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, is a co-production between Rothstein's Theatre Latte Da and Minnesota Public Radio, which previously collaborated on the now yearly standard, All is Calm.

Though focused on one location during a specific period of time (from the middle of the 19th century until the early 1920s, when the immigration laws changed) Steerage Song still has a lot of pieces. "There are two dozen countries represented in the piece and they are singing in 20 different languages," Rothstein says. "We also wanted something that could live on radio, so we can't rely on projections or staging to tell the story."

Rothstein admits that there are personal and political reasons for developing the piece. "My partner is from Mexico and we can see that the system is broken," he says. "There is a total lack of compassion and integrity in our immigration system. My niece married a man from Guatemala, and what they had to go through to share a life together was incredible."

Research for the piece took Rothstein to New York City, both for multiple trips to Ellis Island and also to do additional research throughout the city. Beyond that, he has made overseas trips to places like Ireland to get additional perspective for those who were leaving their entire world -- often, including their families -- to make a new life for themselves. 

Steerage Song does include music from some of the most famous immigrant musicians, like Irving Berlin. In his research, he also found a wealth of folk songs and other pieces of music written from numerous perspectives, from those about to make the jump across the ocean to those on the ships to those who have already arrived in America.

The piece takes the audience through the experience, from making the decision to leave, through the journey, and then the final arrival and settling in a new land. 

"It was an extraordinary choice that millions of people made," Rothstein says.

There are limits on the story, as it would take far more than two hours to give a complete picture of immigration during the time. There was mass immigration from other parts of the world, especially China, at the same time.

"We decided to frame it as the European immigration experience," Rothstein says. "It comes from the politics of the piece. The people making decisions around immigration today are of European descent. If they looked at their own family experiences, they might have a different perspective. 

Steerage Song runs Thursday through Sunday.