Fourteen years ago Sweet Land the Musical was an idea in my head. Within those 14 years, I got the rights from Ali Selim (screenwriter & filmmaker) and Will Weaver (original short story writer). I wrote the first draft; I had a casual reading at my home. Next, I brought on Laurie Flanagin Hegge. Laurie & I brought Dina Maccabee (composer), Robert Elhai (orchestrator) on to our team. Before anyone, I asked Ann Michels (Inge) to help bring this immigrant woman’s story to the stage. Workshops followed (five in all) Buffalo Gal Productions, Nautilus, and History Theatre all helped to bring Sweet Land to fruition for its premiere at the History Theatre in 2017. Thank you to those who saw the live production at History Theatre, our MN Tour, Taproot Theater in Seattle, Anoka Ramsey, and those of you that took the time to watch Sweet Land streamed Oct. 9 – 22, supporting the arts and History Theatre in these days of Covid 19! It was always my mission to bring Inge’s story to remind everyone where we came from, why we are here in America. My Grandfather, Franz Hakala was a driving force for me, having immigrated to America from Finland when he was 5 years old. My co-creators, cast, and patrons have shared their family’s journeys with us. Hearing the effect Sweet Land has on reminding people of their heritage is the most important aspect of this show. There are so many stories to tell, to write, to remember. This is the last day of streaming Sweet Land (Oct. 22nd). Sincere thanks to all who know how important this project is to me and my creative partners. I leave you with the opening lyrics…
EVERY PLACE HAS A STORY
EVERY PERSON HAS THEIR TIME
EVERY TALE HAS AN ENDING
DON’T KNOW YOURS, DON’T KNOW MINE
EVERY END HAS A BEGINNING
ALL BEGINNINGS HAVE AN END
IN BETWEEN COME ALL THE HOURS WE CAN BARELY COMPREHEND
AND WE HOPE WHAT CAME BEFORE US WAS A STORY BORN OF LOVE
Stories of America have been mined for musical gold many times. In Sweet Land, the musical, that gold takes on a hue of wheat. The setting is Park Rapids, Minnesota. A married couple is packing up the remains of a farm home. Lars’ grandmother had died two years earlier. Mementos from the past such as a photograph and a letter dated July, 1920 are the catalyst to a trip back in time.
Olaf Torvik (Robert Berdahl) was farming his land alone. He was introduced to Inge Altenberg (Ann Michels) through relatives back in Europe. From a written letter, she came to America at his asking carrying a gramophone and speaking not a word of English. After landing here, she jumps on a train to the middle of the country for a new life.
This musical had its world premier in 2017. The History Theatre is streaming that production this month. The timing is ideal. As our nation clashes over immigration policy, the themes of this show resonate loudly. Sweet Land is a sweet little show that takes time to reveal goodness and grace within people. Sweet Land also addresses hardship and conflict before healing.
A violinist is center stage as the jittery strings underscore tension. World War I is over. In 1917, Germans represented the largest single ethnic group in Minnesota. German Americans were evaluated for their patriotic attitudes supported by a network of spies from the newly created Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. Into this world arrives Inge, a German.
Olaf and Inge had agreed to marry but the church cannot sanction such a union. The priest does not know her and she has no references. Even the Judge will not marry them, saying “Why did she leave Germany? She is not one of us.” While all of this sounds like dour melodrama, there is a lightness to the storytelling which keeps the show in the zone of entertaining and heartwarming. The struggles are real but our ability to consider them is refreshingly pleasant. Both actors have great chemistry in addition to fully formed characterizations. The whole cast and the musicians were additive to enjoying this piece.
The book was written by Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge. Words create vivid imagery such as “tired, bedraggled, covered in dust.” The characters and situations are often humorous. When Olaf shoots a pheasant, he tries to hand it over to Inge. “You shoot, you pluck,” she retorts. My favorite outburst written into the book was the “Nein” speech.
The plentiful songs in Sweet Land were written by Laurie Flanigan Hegge (lyrics) and Dina Maccabee (music). There are nice nods to music and expressions from the period. I thought I heard a few flashes of the scores for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Brokeback Mountainburied in there. The dissonant tones of the score were very effective.
This musical was directed by Perrin Post. For a small scale show, many transitions were particularly fluid such as a kitchen scene evolving into a porch scene. The technical elements, particularly the lighting (Mike Grogan) and sound effects (C Andrew Mayer), were noticeably excellent. The neighbor’s tractor ride can only be described as Green Acres realness with overalls instead of a suit and tie.
Quite a few themes emerge from this small tale of two people and the rural farming community that surrounds them. What does it mean to really care about your fellow citizens? What assumptions do we make about people based upon their race or background? Is it properly called apple pie or is it really strudel?
The vilification of immigrants and also those who seem different than us remains a core American value, sadly. Sometimes it is therapeutic to step back and listen. People on both sides of a war might not simply be blind followers of their governments or political parties. The search for personal happiness and fulfillment is deftly explored in Sweet Land, the musical. Let’s hope America can find its way there too.
Sweet Land, the musical is streaming through October 22, 2020 from History Theatre at Home. You can choose the level of your ticket price.
by: Warren Gerds, Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions every Sunday morning during the 6-7:30 broadcast on WFRV-TV, Channel 5.Posted: Oct 9, 2020 / 12:01 AM CDT / Updated: Oct 8, 2020 / 04:33 PM CDT
GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Book and lyrics.
The story and the words in a musical.
That’s what Laurie Flanigan Hegge does.
She is a special kind of wordsmith.
Three times she has been associated in that role for shows of Northern Sky Theater of Door County – “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “See Jane Vote” and “Boxcar.”
Each of those musicals has a bit more grip than usual for Northern Sky shows.
Having a lot more grip is “Sweet Land,” about which Laurie Flanigan Hegge contacted me because that musical will be available online today, Oct. 9, to Oct. 22.
“I know you and your readership are familiar with my work at Northern Sky, and might be excited to see this project,” she wrote by email. “Bonus: My hubby Jon Hegge, another Northern Sky and Door Shakespeare alum, is in this show!”
Laurie Flannigan Hegge provides a perspective on the world of writing original musicals in the Midwest for two theater companies.
Also in this piece, I will give my reviewer’s take on “Sweet Land.”
For “Loose Lips Sink Ships” (2001) Laurie Flanigan Hegge teamed with Jacinda Duffin to co-write the book and lyrics and composer James Kaplan to tell the story of the lives and loves surrounding the shipyards of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, during World War II.
For “See Jane Vote” (2006), Laurie Flanigan Hegge teamed with composer James Kaplan to turn back the clock to 1913 for the story of a woman’s pursuit of the right to vote (still seven years away by federal law) in the Wisconsin town of Liberty Grove.
For “Boxcar” (2018), Laurie Flannigan Hegge teamed with composer James Valcq for the tale of a boy and two hobos in the tough times of the 1930s in Wisconsin. The musical “says something about people who came before us who had to get by,” my review said at the time.
By 2018, Laurie Flanigan Hegge had already been part of “Sweet Land,” presented by History Theatre of Saint Paul, Minnesota. The world premiere was in 2017. For History Theatre, Laurie Flanigan Hegge’s other collaborations are “Dirty Business,” “Hormel Girls” and “20 Days to Find a Wife.”
“Sweet Land” has resurfaced because of the coronavirus COVID-19. Like so many companies, History Theatre is looking for new avenues to remain valid. Thus, online showings of “Sweet Land.” Info: historytheater.com.
“With our industry closed down, this is one of the only ways that audiences can see our work and support the artists and the theaters they love,” Laurie Flannigan Hegge writes.
Looking at “Sweet Land” separately.
It is a story of love with fascinating snags.
Action starts with a flashback. On a farm in Minnesota, a man of today envisions his grandparents in 1920. Through a whisp of theater, the man becomes his grandfather of Scandinavian heritage, Olaf Torvik.
Olaf is a bachelor farmer. Arriving is his bride, Inge Altenberg, who has kept house for Olaf’s parents back home in Norway.
Snag: Inge is German, and the just-ended World War I leaves deep bitterness toward Germans.
Olaf is asked, “German! What are you thinking?” Olaf has a bachelor’s answer: “I’m thinking I need a wife.”
Snag: Even though they have just met, Olaf and Inge intend to marry, and they go to the church. The pastor says, “She is not one of us.” The marriage must wait.
Snag: A possibility is a civil ceremony. The judge echoes the pastor. The marriage must wait.
Snag: Inge wants to move in with Olaf. Olaf says no because of propriety. Inge explodes and unleashes a barrage of anger, in German, that translates to her calling Olaf a coward.
And so the story gains traction. Ahead is fun – a baseball game, a dance and the zesty neighbors, Frandsen and his wife Brownie. Also ahead is an impending SNAG – a foreclosure.
“Sweet Land” is a window on complexities that engulfed a past generation. Losses of loved ones in the war are part of the difficulties.
Flashes of elevated artistry stand out in the production. A discordant violin infuses tension in some scenes. A dance sequence starts as a variant square dance that flows into a kind of folk dance with accordion that flows into an artful duo dance with cello. Later, Inge will dance barefoot in a form of impressionistic ballet. A scene with an auctioneer feeds on his rhythm, with the crowd creating an a cappella angst.
As the always-optimistic Inge, Ann Michels covers the waterfront in characterization – loving, teasing, aching, mocking, challenging and more. And the rest of the company fills the bill, with musicians doubling in acting roles.
Creative: Playwright/director – Perrin Post; playwright/lyricist – Laurie Flanigan Hegge; composer – Dina Maccabee; choreographer – Joe Chavala; musical arranger – Robert Elhai
An overall impression is “Sweet Land” is a tapestry. Like so many musicals, it makes the story in combination with music, movement and human expressive nuance all the denser. A weakness may be the resolution of the problem in the story is akin to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but the piece has many riches.
What Northern Sky Theater of Door County and History Theatre of Minnesota do are kind of/sort of in the same ballpark.
“Sweet Land” is longer by twice what Northern Sky Theater presents, and its tone is more dramatic by twice, too. But both are populist theater.
Taking an opportunity, I asked Laurie Flanigan Hegge questions by email, and her responses are illuminating.
Why “Sweet Land”? Is it from you? From someone else’s idea? Either way, what motivated it?
My collaborator Perrin Post originated this project. She fell in love with the movie and got the rights from filmmaker Ali Selim, who wrote and directed the film, and author Will Weaver, who wrote the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” which inspired the film. Perrin brought me into the project. We talk about that in this conversation if you want more about the origin story: https://www.facebook.com/HistoryTheatre/videos/2649305358720844.
How is working on a musical for History Theatre the same as/different than for Northern Sky Theater?
Here’s something different: This was my first time working on an adaptation, and so from that perspective it was different than anything I’ve done for Northern Sky. “Sweet Land” was in process for a while before it was decided that it would premiere at the History Theatre. But still, there were a lot of similarities, because there were actors attached to the project from the beginning, like the lead, Ann Michels, and much like my experience writing for a specific company at Northern Sky, we wrote this with Ann in mind. “Sweet Land” went through a long development process, which included two workshops before History Theatre became attached, and two wonderful workshops with History Theatre after they became attached, as well as a Rough Cuts workshop with Nautilus Music-Theater in St. Paul. Perrin directed the History Theatre production, and the upcoming stream was captured with three cameras, so it’s a really quality recording. It’s fitting that it should have premiered at the History Theatre, which is now my artistic home much like Northern Sky was my artistic home for many wonderful years.
Writing for the summer stage at Northern Sky means there are certain limitations. It must be one act, for example, and you’re writing with a company of actors in mind. There are similar limitations when writing an adaptation; a lot of decisions were made for us because we agreed to keep certain aspects of the story when we secured the rights. The interesting thing is, that can be very freeing. I love the Northern Sky audience. Writing specifically for the Northern Sky audience requires a handle of what will tickle kids and grandparents at the same time. I like to write for the Northern Sky audience with my heart on my sleeve, because that’s what (co-founder) Fred Alley did, and I learned so much from him. I think that’s probably why I was so attracted to “Sweet Land.” The story is all about heart, about love and loss and fear and faith, and finally: hope. Northern Sky taught me that there’s nothing corny about having a heart, and it taught me about what it means to be part of a community, which is a big theme in “Sweet Land.”
Working at Northern Sky also ingrained in me a sense of play. That translates to an invitation to never take myself too seriously – and I like it when my characters don’t take themselves too seriously, either. One of the delightful things in “Sweet Land” is that the musicians on stage become animals in a barn at one point. Anything is possible when you are having fun and feel you have permission to play. Speaking of musicians on stage, perhaps that’s the biggest influence Northern Sky has had on me. I love seeing actors on stage with a guitar in their hands. I’m sure Perrin had the idea to have the musicians be fully incorporated into the acting ensemble before I ever joined the “Sweet Land” team, and that’s probably one of the biggest things that attracted me to the project. We did it all the time at Northern Sky back in the day, and it’s so fun. The “Sweet Land” orchestra double as ensemble members. No small feat when you hear the score.
I was really happy to be part of an all-women writing team on this project. Dina Maccabee’s score is extraordinary. Dina has no relationship to Northern Sky, yet I think the Northern Sky audience will immediately connect with her. You can find out more about Dina at http://www.dinamaccabee.com. Robert Elhai orchestrated. Robert was Tony-nominated for his orchestrations for Broadway’s “The Lion King” and orchestrates blockbuster Hollywood movies – check out his IMDB if you want your jaw to drop – and he’s an amazing composer in his own right. He was my collaborator on a recent History Theatre commission, “Dirty Business.”
Anything you would like to add, please do.
One thread through all of this is my husband, Jon Hegge, who I’ve been lucky to collaborate with since my first workshop of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” at Northern Sky in 2000. Our daughter wasn’t 2 yet when he appeared onstage with me in my next Northern Sky play, “See Jane Vote,” and he just directed “Boxcar” for me in 2018 at Northern Sky. We work together a lot in the Twin Cities. He was recently in “Dirty Business” and plays Frandsen in “Sweet Land,” the role Alan Cumming plays in the movie. He’s my secret weapon – the first one to read a lyric and the most reliable barometer as to whether anyone else should read it or whether I should go back to my desk for a little while.