"Manuel vs. The Statue of Liberty" : A Musical That We Need Now More than Ever

Kevin Ray Johnson

One of the most rewarding things about being a working actor and playwright in New York City or anywhere for that matter is when you get the chance to work on new shows and learn about what inspired the creative team. No matter how old you are, we all can agree that there is a certain magic to the New York theatre scene and how new work thrives here. 

And now coming to the ring that we call the theatre world is "Manuel vs. The Statue of Liberty".

Noemi de la Puente (Book & Lyrics), David Davila (Music & Lyrics)

Noemi de la Puente (Book & Lyrics), David Davila (Music & Lyrics)

This show by Noemi de la Puente (Book & Lyrics), David Davila (Music & Lyrics) was nominated for the 2015 NYMF Award for Best Musical and winner of the 2014 NYMF Developmental Reading Series Award as well as the 2015 NYMF Special Award for Social Relevance and Impact. In 2016 the show performed two successful public performances at the Wilson College Black Box Theatre at Princeton University.

This show is truly something this country needs right now. With the current state of discourse in this country, people need to feel that they are not alone in their struggles or what they have to go through to feel accepted. This show will leave you with a smile on your face and with that feeling of “Someone understands me” and “Someone gets it”.

"Manuel vs. The Statue of Liberty", according to the shows official website, is a musical comedy about illegal immigration. It portrays the perils, challenges and absurdities faced by Manuel, who can’t leave the USA to accept his scholarship to study at Oxford. He takes on The Statue of Liberty, the Diva of Democracy, in a high-stakes boxing match that pulls no punches about the farce that passes for the immigration system today.

The eclectic score mixes Latin influences with other contemporary American pop music to depict Manuel’s journey from poverty in New York City to the Ivy League. As you watch the Statue of Liberty’s cold copper heart soften towards Manuel, you know there is hope.
Inspired by the true story of a Princeton Undergraduate who was undocumented, the show enthusiastically endorses the DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill that would give undocumented children a path to citizenship. 

The show is currently in a workshop and will be presented at The Gallery Players in association with their Overtures Series. The two Staged Readings will take place on February 6th & 7th at 7:00 pm. It is directed by David Davila (Music & Lyrics) with Music Direction & Orchestrations by Karl Hedrick. The Production Stage Manager is Michael Tosto. 

The workshop features a stellar, hardworking cast headed by Eddy Cavazos (Returning from the 2016 production at Princeton University) as Manuel and Brian Charles Rooney (2006 Broadway Revival of The Three Penny Opera) as The Statue of Liberty.

The award-winning playwright and creator of "Manuel vs. The Statue of Liberty", Noemi de la Puente (Book & Lyrics) was kind enough to answer a couple of questions about this wonderful new show.

How long have you been working on this project and what motivated you to write it?

Noemi: I have been working on the project since about 2008. I heard about the story of an undocumented Princeton undergraduate who got a scholarship to study classical Greek and Latin Literature at Oxford, and wasn’t able to go because he would not be able to return to the USA if he went. I was appalled by the fact that this exemplary person was not able to be a citizen simply because of a technicality in the law. Happy ending for him though - the Classics Department at Princeton hired him and he was able to travel back and forth from the UK on an H1-B visa.

I started with a one-act musical at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, as part of one of their showcases for their playwriting group. The audience response was so powerful; people were asking me to turn it into a full-length musical. I had no musical experience, but I decided to go for it. I learned as I went, and it was difficult! The sins you can get away within a 20 minute piece are not tolerated in a full-length piece. Through the small theatre company I helped found: Dramatic Question Theatre (www.theDQT.org), I slowly cobbled the characters and scenes together, and presented small sections periodically. In addition, my fellow playwrights read early incarnations of the script and administered tough love towards the book.

So from 2008 to 2013 I was working on it off and on until gave it a concerted push, and then the show was in NYMF in 2014 as a developmental reading, and 2015 as  NYMF Next Link Production, which really boosted the quality of the show. David Davila teamed up with me in between the reading of 2014 and the production in 2015 and created a huge change in the music, and sound of the piece. So short answer - I have been at it almost 10 years! haha! David has been apart of it for three years.

How timely do you feel Manuel vs. The Statue of Liberty is to what some people have to go through in this country?

Noemi: The musical has a “ripped from the headlines” quality now, but has been carefully researched over the years. The things David and I struggled to investigate 2- 3 years ago are now almost common knowledge. Everywhere we present this piece there are people in the audience who know what it is like to be in Manuel’s shoes, or know someone who does. Every time we have presented this show there is always someone in the audience who “gets it” in a visceral way. The rest of the people in the audience get to spend 90 minutes in the shoes of an undocumented kid applying to college, but in a very entertaining way.

What are your long-term goals for Manuel vs. The Statue of Liberty?

Noemi: Haha! I am so ambitious - I would love this show to be on Broadway, or off-Broadway, or the “Off-On-Off Broadway” model that Avenue Q started, and then have a long, full life in licensing. I want every college and high school in the nation to do this show! By doing this show, the kids can speak to their communities about the true cost of immigration policy towards kids who have not done anything of their own volition.

How important do you feel new works are for the New York theatre Scene?

Noemi: New works are the “secret sauce” that makes New York City the capital of musical theatre development in the USA. In fact - many regional theatres look to the New York City theatre environment to see what grows, and what flourishes and make selections informed by how new works do in NYC. Without new works, New York City would not be the theatre capital it is. That is not to say that new works are not created elsewhere. But the volume and prominence of New York in the development of new musicals is a key component of the city’s vibrant theatre scene. Writers come to find collaborators in New York City and then create work in NYC, and then try and get productions out of town, so chances are a show that is developed somewhere else, as a little bit of the NYC new works scene in its DNA somewhere. Then eventually these writing teams bring their shows back to NYC for a run, where the new work is hopefully celebrated and successful! Then it goes out of town again through tours and licensing. So in some ways, NYC is the hub of new works, with spokes radiating outwards.

So, in conclusion, you can truly see that new works are coming from everywhere. It may not feel like it but any working artist in the theatre world will truly reap the benefits when new works succeed and take off.  Earlier I mentioned how people want to feel accepted and or find their place in not only our industry but in the world (especially in this country). I feel that begins with optimism and an open mind. I strongly suggest that you come check this new show out on February 6th & 7th at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn. There is something so refreshing and inspiring about companies and artist who create new work. Just remember this. There was a time that people were telling Lin Manuel-Miranda that hip-hop would never work on Broadway. There was a time where his work was considered ‘new’ and what helped him was people coming in, giving it a chance, staying optimistic and believing in him. The rest was history. Let’s keep that going.  SUPPORT NEW WORKS!

The Gallery Players is located at 199 14th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215. More information about the upcoming readings can be found at – http://www.galleryplayers.com/overtures/

If you would like to know more feel free to check out this video to see the dream that inspired the show - https://vimeo.com/126387799 or visit the shows official website at -  https://www.manuelvsthestatueofliberty.com.