Last weekend, Village Theatre’s latest Beta Series show had its final performance after a two-week run. Hart Island, a heart-wrenching new musical that explores the grief and growth of two unlikely protagonists, left audiences stunned and moved with its powerful story and exceptional score.
“I first read about Hart Island in 2011,” said Michelle Elliott, bookwriter and co-lyricist. After reading about it, Elliott sent the article to composer and co-lyricist Danny Haengil Larsen, and the two were immediately captivated by the idea of the island as the foundation of a future musical they would write together.
Hart Island is a real location just off the coast of Manhattan where the unclaimed of New York City — immigrants, stillborn babies, and people experiencing homelessness, among others — find their final resting place. Elliott and Larsen drew parallels between Hart Island and Rikers Island — an equally real place between Queens and the Bronx that serves as home to one of the world’s largest correctional facilities.
The overlap between these islands as places where New York’s unwanted are pushed to and forgotten called to Larsen and Elliott, serving as the creative catalyst for Hart Island.
“We tend to gravitate toward stories about people who are marginalized or on the fringes, whose stories aren’t often told,” Larsen said.
This inclination is apparent in the story arc of the show’s male protagonist, Charles, an inmate on Rikers Island who is assigned to work on the burial crew on Hart Island, where one of the bodies he buries is the stillborn baby of Dominican immigrant and female protagonist Marielena.
These two marginalized narratives intermingle via desperate letters Marielena sends to Hart Island, inquiring about her son’s resting place — if there is anything beautiful that grows near his grave. Charles, the newest member of the burial crew, is tasked with responding to the letters, which serve as a platform for him to reluctantly work through his own grief, loss, anger, and unjust victimization by a system designed to oppress him.
In writing to one another, Marielena and Charles are able to offer each other comfort and growth, while forcing each other to stare into the painful and difficult realities of their respective situations. The story and music of Hart Island carefully and aptly unpack the humanity of two characters often excluded from the stories we consume, while examining the painful individual impact of mass incarceration, poverty, racial discrimination, and language barriers.
In other words, it’s not your average musical.
“Our intention with this show is to illuminate aspects of our shared grief and humanity,” Elliott said. “It is a show about very complex and challenging subject matter — not what musicals typically cover.”
The writers said that though the core of the story and its intentions have remained the same from their first inspiration about eight years ago, the show itself has changed drastically since they first began developing it at Village Theatre’s Writer’s Residency in 2016. Now in its third draft, only three of the original musical numbers remain, and characters and plot lines have been carefully honed and reconsidered. This two-week run was the first time Larsen and Elliott were able to see their production performed in front of an audience with lights, set pieces, costumes, and an orchestra.
“When you add those elements, it changes everything,” said Larsen. “You start to realize things that you can’t see until it’s up on its feet. So, the opportunity to be a part of the Beta Series is an exciting one.”
Now that the curtain has closed on Hart Island’s final performance as a Beta Series production, Elliott and Larsen will take feedback from Issaquah audiences back to New York to continue developing the show — hopefully for a full-fledged run at Village or elsewhere in the future.
Whatever small tweaks they go on to make, however, it’s clear that the two have something special on their hands.
“We want the show to stay with people long after they’ve seen it,” Larsen said. “For better or for worse, we are a rare category of musical theatre writers who believes that musical theatre can make a difference in the lives of people, can have something to say that will impact people and help make change for the future. That’s always what we’re aiming for.”
And with Hart Island, Larsen and Elliott are right on track to hit the bullseye.