Playwright: Alex Higgin-Houser ( book, lyrics ), David Kornfeld ( music ). At: Underscore Theatre Company at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway. Tickets: 312-646-0975; Underscoretheatre.org; $20-$25. Runs through: June 12
On May 4, 1886, a bomb went off during a labor rally near Randolph and Des Plaines streets in what is now the West Loop.
The bomber never was identified, but six mennone present when the bomb was thrownwere convicted of conspiracy. One committed suicide in jail, five were hung, one spent 15 years in prison. They fought for unionization, an eight-hour day, an end to child labor and social justice. Some believed in peaceful means, but it's a fact that many early labor leaders were anarchists, socialists and bomb radicals who advocated armed struggle. Conservative political opinion of the day didn't separate the factions. The dominant capitalist class was anti-union, anti-radical and anti-immigrant, and five of the six convicted labor leaders were German immigrants.
Haymarket: The Anarchist's Songbook, is the second world premiere I've reviewed this month honoring the 130th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot and its labor martyrs. This one is more compact and more compelling in part because it's a musical, and a smart musical at that using a double dramatic arc to convey its story. First, it dramatizes the conflict of philosophies between the half-dozen men eventually convicted. Then, it personalizes the story of the principal unionist, Albert Parsons, an American-born Civil War veteran who married an African-American woman, Lucy. The political and personal stories reinforce each other, although Albert and Lucy Parsons make a powerful story by themselves.
All nine actors in the show double on musical instruments in grand style: numerous strummed or bowed string instruments plus piano, accordion, tambourine, trumpet, even spoons. They're all 19th-century folkloric instruments that suit composer David Kornfeld's lilting tunes which range from labor anthems to waltzes to ballads. Alex Higgin-Houser's lyrics always are intelligent and become increasingly pointed in Act II, in which the men are tried and hung despite international appeals for clemency. This particularly sharp quatrain caught my attention and is typical of the show's quality: "Blame is a fire with suspicion at the center; Do you blame the fire or the fire's inventor? Blame is a fire, don't fan the flame; Innocent or guilty both burn the same."
Elizabeth Margolius directed and created the musical staging ( not billed as choreography ). The physical work is smooth and skillful on Kurtis Boetcher's warm, wood multilevel unit set, suggesting a cluttered 19th-century warehouse containing a city's detritus, including miniature houses and buildings. Above all, Haymarket: The Anarchist's Songbook features gorgeous lighting unusual for an intimate off-Loop theater. On a cozy proscenium arch stage, lighting designer Erik Barry mixes overlapping areas of white, yellow, blue and red given great depth by perfect back lighting, the use of which too often is forgotten.