“Ladies and gentlemen: Miss Kate Burton,” announced Brown orchestra conductor Paul Phillips, March 6, his back to an empty house at Providence’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium. On stage, his musicians applauded as Burton ’79 blew them kisses. With her copper hair and matching paisley shawl, she exuded the gravitas of the Broadway star she is. “Mr. Barry Bostwick,” Phillips continued, and the students clapped louder, craning up at the Spin City and Rocky Horror Picture Show star, who removed his jacket and lay it on the stage, then grinned and leaned casually on a stool—a pro, in his element. Here and there in the orchestra, a student’s blue-jeaned knee jiggled nervously up and down.
For the musicians and the actors, this was their first, and only, chance to rehearse together. That night they would perform Ellis Island: The Dream of America, before an audience. It’s a complicated piece, juxtaposing oral histories of immigrants’ arrival in New York Harbor with archival photography and an extended work of concert music that composer Peter Boyer had written to accompany those stories. The music, the acting, and the photographs are all carefully synchronized.
Quickly, Phillips ran the musicians and actors through the prologue, and Boyer, who was artist-in-residence at Brown this year, moved around the balcony taking notes. As Burton and Bostwick played the roles of immigrants, the music took on a supporting role. A snare-drum tattoo kept time as the Hungarian immigrant Lazarus Salamon described the military oppression of his youth. A solo violin accompanied Helen Rosenthal’s tale of escaping the Nazis as a girl only to learn later that her entire family had died at Auschwitz. When Bostwick took on the role of the exuberant Irish boy Manny Steen (“My first day in America and I’m on Broadway!”), the orchestra swung into a jazzy riff. Phillips swung his baton vigorously, shirttails flying. On a screen above the stage flashed images of crowds disembarking at Ellis Island, mothers with tiny children, the teeming Great Hall where families anxiously waited to see if they would be admitted to a better life than the one they’d left.
Twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island, history professor Elliott Gorn noted in the program that accompanied the concert that night; 100 million Americans can trace their lineage to the immigration station there. As I scanned the varied faces of the young musicians rehearsing that afternoon, my throat tightened. Standing beneath an image of the Statue of Liberty, Burton and Bostwick recited Emma Lazarus’s sonnet The New Colossus, engraved on a plaque at the statue’s base: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The orchestra let loose, and the sound soared, exultant. Then silence settled over the empty house seats, and Boyer’s voice came down from the balcony: “Nice work, Paul.” Then “Trumpets, tonight I want you to blow your brains out.”