Lights up and the boat has arrived at Ellis Island. The Book of Names takes the audience through 24 hours on the small island at the edge of a dream called “America,” — all building to one moment that can change a lifetime.
This spring musical is one unlike any other. Its story of the journey taken by hopeful American immigrants was written by GFA alumnus Jonathan Bauerfeld ’12 and writing partner Casey Kendall. The team collaborated with Director of Theatre Programs Stephen Stout to adapt the music, characters, and length of the show specifically for GFA and its students.
The Book of Names follows the mosaic of different people with different stories all filing through the immigration station. When riots in New York City shut down ferry transportation to and from the island, the group of immigrants must stay longer than they bargained for.
“When we wrote this in 2018, the government — and how it was handling immigration — was at the height of all news cycles,” Bauerfeld explained. “We decided that it would be really interesting to show an open world of immigration.”
Bauerfeld is also building to his moment. A New York-based musical theater composer, orchestrator, and music director, he has worked on shows such as Hamilton, King Kong, and The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. As a composer, he and Kendall have written and scored shows, Limbo: The Twelve (now titled The Jury), and Legacy: The Book of Names, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018 and 2019 and will soon come to life at GFA.
Bauerfeld reconnected with Director of Theatre Programs Stephen Stout through another project initially. Bauerfeld received word a 10-minute musical he had written was being published, and thinking it may be useful for Stout’s teachings, he sent it along to him in an email. It just so happened Stout wanted more — he asked for a whole show.
“I jumped at the chance,” Bauerfeld said. “The Book of Names made perfect sense for GFA. With so many parts and so much potential, I was really interested to see what Stephen was going to do with it as director.”
Stout was excited to collaborate with Bauerfeld, whom he remembered very well from his time at GFA.
“When Jon was a student, it was clear he was a talented composer. There's something about [Bauerfeld] that makes me want to help get him to the next place he's going,” Stout said. “Doing this at GFA — at home — protects their baby while we can ‘be in the sandbox’ and ‘pulse on wires.’ It's freeing in a way to know that there's a lot of things we don't know yet.”
During his time at GFA, Bauerfeld performed in one theatre production and played in the pit for several. He had the opportunity to see firsthand how the different facets of the performing arts department worked in collaboration, which in turn informed his approach to his professional life.
“It's really cool to come back to GFA and to do something like this. I couldn't come back to just any high-school theater program. I can’t wait to see people in the school that I used to attend dig into something we created,” he said. “With [Stout’s] experience both in New York and working on new shows, it makes me confident that this is going to be much like any other professional process I've been a part of.”
The Book of Names originally debuted as a 55-minute production, and this spring will run as a 90-minute, one-act musical. Bauerfeld explained, “This structure allows you to build, build, and build, the entire show.”
“It is so satisfying to be able to stay in your seat and to keep leaning in,” Stout added. “Plus, the music is astoundingly good. It’s quite fine Broadway flair — it has a popular feel to it, but lots of innovation behind it.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic placed many artists out of work for an extended period, the spare time afforded the Bauerfeld-Kendall team the time to write, explore, and ultimately adapt the show. The production will take the stage — or screen — late spring of 2021.