"The Working Boys Band": History Theatre dramatizes the historic power of music education

by Sheila Regan, Special to MPR
April 30, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. — This weekend, the History Theatre premieres a new musical called The Working Boys Band. It's based on an educational program for newspaper boys and other youngsters working in mills and factories that existed in Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century. The Working Boys Band tells the story of Professor C.C. Heintzeman, a German-born teacher who makes a difference in the young people's lives by showing them the power of music.

The piece was commissioned three years ago, according to History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso. Composer Hiram Titus collaborated with playwright Dominic Orlando to create the musical, which was presented as part of the History Theatre's Raw Stages program in 2013 and now sees its world premiere, in partnership with McNally Smith College of Music, MacPhail Center for Music, and Walker West Music Academy. Sadly, Titus passed away shortly after completing the music, so Raymond Berg completed the musical arrangements with additional marching band arrangements created by Ben Buffy, according to musical director Andrew Fleser.

Fleser said that Titus's harmonic language contains complex flavors and tone clusters, creating a rich complexity. "The harmony is somewhat angular and somewhat warm," Fleser said. "He's managed to capture the marching band sound of the early 20th century without making it feel like a time capsule."

According to Fleser, the History Theatre, with MacPhail and its other partners, reached out to band directors all over to find a cast of actors who could both act and play in a marching band. "We looked everywhere we could," he said. Musicians include the 14-member marching band on stage plus additional musicians that play snare, drum, trumpet and clarinet, Fleser said.

The Working Boys Band was originally put together at the turn of the century and existed in various iterations all the way up to the 1940s. For the musical, the creators chose to focus on a time period prior to World War I. According to playwright Dominic Orlando, it was a time period with a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly against Germans, when the Committee for Public Safety acted as a watchdog group aimed at keeping an eye on immigrants.

Amidst this political backdrop emerges the story of a teacher, who comes into the lives of the Working Boys to change their lives. "It's a play about a teacher who was like a parent to these kids," said Orlando.

Many of the boys who were in the Working Boys Band were immigrants themselves, and worked low-paying jobs. "In those days, there were no child labor laws," Peluso said. "From eight to 18 young people were working in factories — they had loose change in their pockets and they were roaming the streets and pool halls." Originally started as a program for newsboys and later expanded as a program for other working boys, the band was an effort by prominent businessmen in the community to keep these boys off the street and teach them culture, Peluso said.

At the time, people believed that music and culture could play a huge role in teaching discipline and giving structure for young people. "Unfortunately, we don't have the same faith in the arts today," Orlando said.

Still, 100 years later, "many of these issues are still relevant," Peluso said. "Music and culture can play a huge role to help young people figure out who they are. Those values still last."

The Working Boys Band runs from May 3 through June 1. Tickets and more information are available at the History Theatre's website.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.

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