A gender-bending Civil War soldier’s tale comes to the musical stage

Author: Trudy Ring

In August of 1862, Lyons Wakeman, a 19-year-old from upstate New York, enlisted in the Union Army. Wakeman went on to fight gallantly in action against the Confederates in Louisiana before, like so many Civil War soldiers, dying from disease rather than a bullet. But Wakeman differed from the other soldiers in one key respect: She was assigned female at birth and lived most of her life under the name Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

Now Wakeman’s story is coming to the stage, as she’s the focus of a musical play, with the working title of The Rosetta Project, that creator Jenn Grinels hopes to take to Broadway. Audiences in Oregon will soon get a preview of the show, with a concert featuring many of the songs to be presented Sunday in Portland and Thursday in Bend.

Grinels, a Portland-based singer-songwriter with six albums to her credit, figures the subject, while drawn from history, is particularly relevant today.

“Part of why the musical is so moving to people is because it’s really topical,” she says, at a time when the rights of women and transgender people are under attack. We don’t know what Wakeman’s motivations were for presenting as male and whether the young soldier was cisgender, trans, or nonbinary — there weren’t words for gender-variant people in the 1860s, although they certainly existed. But the show definitely will make audiences think about issues of identity.

And not just gender identity. Wakeman, Grinels points out, is a 19-year-old trying to figure out who they are, and “everybody can relate to that,” she says. So she sees Wakeman’s story as both specific and universal.

“I’ve just tried to present how this human may have been feeling,” she says, and let audiences draw their own conclusions. The great thing about music is you can leave it open to interpretation,” adds Grinels, who is straight and cisgender but a strong ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

The Rosetta Project has been several years in the making. In addition to her work as a singer-songwriter, Grinels has extensive experience in musical theater, and she was commissioned to create the show in 2017 by a theater company that no longer exists. The company had acquired a book of Wakeman’s letters, and Grinels, upon perusing them, agreed that the material would make a good show. While the theater company went out of business, Grinels kept up with the project and presented a concert version of the show in Portland in 2021. The upcoming performances will be concert versions as well but will be a more expansive presentation, twice as long, with full vocal arrangements and a full band.

Then in late April, there will be a full production for one night at Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York City, as Grinels is the school’s emerging artist in residence for 2024. This is part of the show’s hoped-for journey to Broadway.

The Portland and Bend concerts will have the same principal cast, including Grinels and nonbinary actor Ari Notartomaso, a breakout star of the Paramount+ series Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies — they played lesbian character Cynthia. Notartomaso will sing the many solos of the Wakeman character. There will also be an ensemble of singers who were chosen locally in each city. “I can’t emphasize enough how incredible these singers are,” Grinels says.

Many of the songs are in the vein of folk-rock/Americana. The theater company that originally offered the project to Grinels said she was their second choice — after Brandi Carlile. As she wrote the score, she immersed herself in the music of Carlile, Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers, and similar artists to help her get the sound she wanted.

A few of the songs are more pop-oriented, as Grinels says she wanted to have some songs that could be enjoyed outside of the show. She recognizes that not everyone who likes music is a fan of musical theater, she says. In writing for her albums, she leans more toward rock and blues, although “I’ve always been a little hard to pin down as a singer-songwriter,” she notes.

In addition to her work on The Rosetta Project, Grinels has finished an as-yet untitled album with lyricist Alfred Howard; the first single, “Always on the Run,” is online. She also has a folk duo with her best friend, Merideth Kaye Clark, and they’re working a quadruple album about each of the seasons.

While it may seem like The Rosetta Project has taken a long time to come to fruition, Grinels points out that 10 years is the average time it takes to get a show on Broadway, so it feels like things are going at a normal pace. However, if the show is available to a large audience at a time when gender issues are the topic of such intense discussion and debate, so much the better, she says: “I want to be able to get it out while it’s in the forefront of people’s minds.”

Each of the Oregon venues has chosen its own name for the concert, so they differ although the program is the same. Stories and Bones — Highlights From the Rosetta Project: Wakeman is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sunday at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland. Rosetta — Story of a Soldier: Highlights From the Rosetta Project: Wakeman is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Tower Theatre in Bend.

Pictured, from left: Ari Notartomaso, Jenn Grinels, and Sarah Rosetta Wakeman

The trailer is from the 2021 presentation in Portland.


Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Trudy Ring

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