‘Wings of Fire’ makes world premiere at Willamette

by Department of Theatre,

  • Students in two lines face the audience singing in "Wings of Fire"
  • A woman stands onstage surrounded by suitcases in low blue light
  • A crowd bathed in red light looks up at five people standing on a balcony in white light

Director Susan Coromel and composer Austin Green discuss the evolution and staging of the musical based on a tragic fire that shaped workers’ rights in the U.S.

“Wings of Fire” made its world premiere at Willamette University over the weekend and runs through April 28. The musical is based on the events of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The fire was a seminal event in the culture of America’s workplace and resulted in legislation tailored to ensure the safety of the nation’s workers.

Inspired by this tragedy and the unique tenderness in the music of this era, playwright Hayley Hoffmeister Green and composer Austin Green conceived the musical. Professor Susan Coromel is directing the production that involves a cadre of students working onstage and behind the scenes on everything from costumes and props to sound engineering and scene design. The result of their collaboration is a two-hour adventure that tells this touching and tragic story through song while commemorating the 146 individuals who died.

Director Susan Coromel and conductor Austin Green provided insight into the production and their process in a Q-and-A with the Department of Theatre.

An interview with Susan Coromel, director

How would you describe the musical?

“Wings of Fire” tells the true story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City where 146 people, mostly immigrant women aged 17 to 22, were killed. But the production is about more than just the fire itself; it is a story of immigrants, a story of family and of being young in a country full of possibilities.

Why should people see “Wing of Fire”?

Playwright Hayley Hoffmeister Green and composer Austin Green have woven the tragic story of the days leading up to the fire into a compelling story of young immigrant factory workers, “The Triangle Girls,” and the trials and tribulations of making a life for themselves in America. The music is based on actual songs popular during the period. These songs have entirely new melodies set to the original lyrics, or new lyrics with original compositions. The goal of the compositional arrangements was to bring music from the era into modern times. In this way, the music is identifiable to the audience, drawing a closer connection between the victims of the fire and a contemporary audience.

What did you enjoy most about directing this production?

Directing a new musical, or any new work for the stage, comes with specific challenges. It is the first time the play is being produced, and everyone involved in the process is helping define the playwright’s script. Everyone — the actors, designers, choreographer, director and others — is responsible to support the script and help create the first live performance of that script. Everyone on this project has a monstrous amount of contagious creativity and energy. There is absolutely nothing like being a part of new play development.

What do you want people to remember when they leave the theatre?

Theatre is about ideas. The Triangle fire was a watershed moment where America said, "If this can happen here, what kind of society are we?" I would like our audiences to think about what is at stake now and how our society has changed. What does it tell us about greed and work conditions? What does it tell us about the prospect of industrial deregulation in the workplace? Workers' rights advocate Frances Perkins said the New Deal began on March 25, 1911, the day of the fire. This play is one way to honor the sacrifices of the victims of the fire and to support the rights of immigrants, workers and women.

An interview with Austin Green, composer and music director

How would you describe “Wings of Fire”?

At first glance, it is a historical journey highlighting an important time for the American working class. Beyond that, the historical event itself is only one part of a bigger story about the individual victims, their families, loves and friendships outside of the tragedy. These people were victims of a terrible and avoidable horror, but their lives were about much more. Through this lens, we wanted to highlight the pure joy of life and sincere hopefulness, despite the stark realities of the working and living conditions to which the common blue collar American was subjected. That beautiful picture of hope only magnifies the impact and implications of the event.

Why should people see the musical?

For theatre patrons who enjoy supporting new works and being immersed in historical culture, and are intrigued by contemporary music that has been expertly reinvented from songs of the show’s era, this is a bonanza! Starting with actual popular music from the time of the event, the songs have been reworked to capture both the history and timelessness of this period. The music is designed to be intrinsic to the character development and each scene's purpose, so that whether a particular tune is toe-tapping catchy, aggressive, poignant, endearing or deeply emotional, every word and musical line is ultimately intended to support the larger story.

What did you enjoy most about directing music for this production?

I love music directing “Wings of Fire” because I really enjoy being continuously surprised by each cast member and what they bring to the stage. Even seven or eight years after writing the music, the freshness of each new perspective on the pieces only adds to the strength of the show. If this musical can still bring a tear to my eye or a smile to my face, then no matter how many times I’ve played it or directed it, I can continue to discover new things with every talented individual who brings fresh ideas and joins the history of this musical.

What do you want people to remember about this experience when they leave the theatre?

There’s nothing more important in life than your faith, family and friends. No matter how young or old you are, the experiences you have in life and the things you accomplish are only made meaningful when you have something to believe in and someone to share it with. If the audience can connect or relate to even one moment in the show, then maybe they can walk away ready to face their maker, with a renewed purpose and drive to make the most of what’s truly important in life, and to share the journey.

Tickets

“Wings of Fire” plays at Willamette University Theatre April 12–28. For tickets and information, call 503-370-6221 or email thtr-tix@willamette.edu.

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