Immigrant Stories, in Song
Tonight, a digital Broadway concert offers the first glimpse of what will become Lives in Limbo, the musical.
The source material is unusual: a densely detailed ethnographic study by Harvard sociologist Roberto Gonzales, who spent 12 years following the lives of 150 undocumented young people in Los Angeles. The resulting book, Lives in Limbo, was released in 2016. Now, development of a full-scale musical is under way to bring stories from his fieldwork to the stage—and into song. Tonight’s concert, Viva Broadway 2020—Celebrate Our Voices!, is intended as a showcase of Latinx Broadway musical talent, with a star-studded lineup including Gloria Estefan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Luis Miranda, Chita Rivera, and Thalía. The show is directed and choreographed by Tony-winner Sergio Trujillo; he also will direct the musical version of Lives in Limbo. Hosted by Andréa Burns, the concert features performances from shows like In the Heights and On Your Feet! as well as from forthcoming productions. Among the latter group is the first song written for the Lives in Limbo adaptation-in-progress: “Every Day,” a poignant lament inspired by one of Gonzales’s research subjects, a young woman he called Esperanza. The concert begins at 8 p.m. ET on Playbill.com.
At first, Gonzales wasn’t sure about the idea of translating his research into musical theater. “In some ways, initially it was hard to let go, because, you know, that’s 12 years of work,” he says. “That’s a lot of time building relationships, a lot of time listening to stories, a lot of time thinking really hard about how I would represent the characters in the book, thinking, how do I do justice to their stories, to their families?” But the musical’s producer, Peggy Koenig, was persuasive. The former CEO of a private equity firm in Boston, she was a 2018 fellow in the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, a program geared toward business executives and other leaders who are, as the initiative’s website describes it, “pivoting to working in areas of social impact.” Koenig took courses on human rights, racial inequality, education—and immigration. “That subject is meaningful to me, because as a Jew, I’m the granddaughter of an immigrant,” she says. “That’s an important part of what I am, and of course what this country is. And I didn’t exactly know what to do with that idea yet. So I tucked it away.” Then, during one of her classes, Gonzales gave a guest lecture. He seemed “so thoughtful, so heart-centered,” she recalls, and the stories he told were so human. She read Lives in Limbo, and an idea struck: “What if I took his stories and turned them into a musical?”
A little more than two years later, she has assembled a team that includes Trujillo, a choreographer and director who won a 2019 Tony Award in choreography for Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. Born in Colombia, he was once an undocumented immigrant himself —first, as a child, in Canada, and then in New York City. Gonzales’s research, he says, tells “an important story in this country.” It’s the kind of story that prompted a private vow for him several years ago. “I was on a pilgrimage to Havana to do some research on dance and music and Cuban culture,” he says. “And on my last day, I remember, I got such a vivid, gut response to being there.…I made this contract with myself to put forward Latinx stories, Latinx writers and artists and musicians. And so, when Peggy approached me about Roberto Gonzales and Lives in Limbo, I said, ‘Of course, of course.’”
The musical’s lyricist is Michelle Rodriguez, a singer and songwriter from a Puerto Rican family who grew up in Seattle and Lexington, Kentucky, listening to bluegrass, pop, indie folk, and traditional bolero. Lives in Limbo’s composer is Julio Reyes Copello, a Grammy-winning producer and composer (who also has a performing slot during the Viva Broadway concert). Specializing in pop and classical music (he’s also a classical pianist), he describes this project as a thrilling experiment, a first foray into musical theater. “I love musicals, but this is my first time writing for one.”
As the three artists work together—over Zoom these days, with Broadway shuttered and dark, giving them more time than they had expected to spend on developing the musical—all of them speak of motivations that mirror the moral concerns that run throughout Gonzales’s book: about the barriers undocumented immigrants face to establishing stable lives, and the inequalities built into immigration policy, about injustice, and pain. Rodriguez, whose father and grandmother are pastors who work with undocumented immigrants, says that writing lyrics “involves a lot of listening, and to listen, you have to put your heart alongside people whose experiences you want to bring to the stage.” She remembers reading Gonzales’s book and being struck by the accident of history. “Because of a fluke in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico happens to be in this particular position with the United States, and other places are not. And so I’m a citizen. It could very easily have gone a very different way in that colonial moment. These stories are not abstract for me.”
Copello, another native Colombian, who came to the United States in 1997 on a graduate scholarship to the University of Miami, speaks of music as an “emotional language” that transcends the mind. “With all the fear that is being created toward us Latins, these comments that Mexicans are rapists and criminals—I don’t think they know that most of the time if people come here, it’s because we love what’s been built here; we want to be part of it.”
For Trujillo, the past few years of immigration policy—migrant children in detention camps, families separated at the border—have been “incredibly painful,” he says. “What is happening to immigrants from Central America is inhumane. And I can’t go march up and down the border myself, but what I can do is try to do something through my art.”
All of that anguish and fear—and hope—is channeled into “Every Day,” a lilting, haunted song written from the perspective of Esperanza, who graduated from the University of California in 2006 and 10 years later was still struggling to make ends meet as a receptionist and a mother. In the book, she tells Gonzales about the opportunities she missed or was forced to turn down: a job at a university lab, a research internship, law school. At one point, she says to him: “Can you imagine? I would have been young and extraordinary. I would have been the walking truth instead of a walking shadow.”
Those words echo throughout the lyrics. The first time Gonzales heard the song, a demo version that Koenig sent him this summer, he was headed for a hike with his family. “I played it in the car, and I just started crying,” he says. “Hearing those lines, hearing the connection to Esperanza’s actual words—it was just really powerful.”