Arts & Theater

A musical about the Donner Party? Give it a chance, creators say

Sacramento Theatre Company stages the world premiere of a dramatic musical, “The Donner Party.” It opens this weekend on the STC Main Stage.
Sacramento Theatre Company stages the world premiere of a dramatic musical, “The Donner Party.” It opens this weekend on the STC Main Stage. Sacramento Theatre Company

If you heard that Sacramento Theatre Company will produce a world premiere musical based on the story of the legendary Donner Party, you might have thought, “Hmm, that’s a nervy choice.”

The creators of “The Donner Party,” which opens this weekend on the STC Main Stage, just want you to keep an open mind and give them a chance. After all, a few years ago an enterprising young man turned the dense literary biography of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton into an unlikely multiracial hip-hop musical. That turned out OK.

To refresh your memory of local history, the Donner party was a group of pioneers led by George Donner and James F. Reed who in May 1846 set out for Sutter’s Fort from Springfield, Ill. The trip by wagon train typically took between four and six months. The Donner-Reed party left a larger body of wagons to take an untried “shortcut” across the Great Basin, which had been described by writer-adventurer Lansford Hastings.

A series of misfortunes seriously delayed the party and caused the 87 members to become snowbound in the Sierra mountains near Truckee (and what is now called Donner Lake) in December. They ran out of food and some of the pioneers resorted to cannibalism. Forty-eight people survived the deadly winter, eventually making their way west out of the mountains.

“Why not? It’s full of drama with great emotional moments,” said Margaret Rose, one of the new musical’s co-creators. She will co-direct STC’s season-closing production with executive producing director Michael Laun. The cast includes Jerry Lee as George Donner, Maggie Hollinbeck as Tamsen Donner, Michael RJ Campbell as James Reed and Vivienne Cleary as Margaret Reed.

“I think the emotion is key because that’s what musicals do,” said composer Eric Rockwell. “It’s emotion that drives you into the song moment.”

“Imagining what the characters were thinking, what they were feeling,” Rose said. “Words won’t suffice, and you have to turn to music. We just think a musical is the perfect medium for this story.”

Rockwell had to come up with a musical vocabulary for the show

“I didn’t want it to sound too contemporary and yet the music should have a universal message that was right for us as well as for them,” he said.

The live five-piece orchestra is made up of piano, violin, cello, horn and percussion.

Rockwell and Rose have studied the Donner party history thoroughly watching the Ric Burns documentary and reading numerous chronicles including George Stewart’s “Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party.” They both have been to the museum in Truckee. The musical will try and make all the information into a relatable story. The writers think audiences will realize a series of choices were made rather than “fate” decided the tragic outcomes for many of the pioneers.

Co-director Michael Laun hopes modern audiences find something inspirational in the 170-year-old story.

“It’s a perfect show to do here because of its local relevance,” he said. “It’s a commitment we have as theater producers to give writers an opportunity to create new work.”

Laun commissioned the work after working with Rose and Rockwell on “A Little Princess” in 2013. Both writers attended Sacramento State in the late ’70s where their creative partnership began under the nurturing tutelage of Dr. Gerald Larson. They are now based in New York.

The two-year development of “Donner” included staged readings in New York and in Sacramento. Hearing the work performed allowed the creators to adjust pacing and key emotional moments of the show.

“Ultimately it’s not a story about how half of the group died. It’s about how half of the group lived,” Rose said.

Rockwell said he believes the power of musical theater is too often under-estimated, noting how many successful serious musicals are running.

“People should know better after all these years,” Rockwell said. “They still seemed surprised we can tackle such difficult material. I want them to come so we can prove them wrong.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

The Donner Party

What: The world premiere of a musical written by Eric Rockwell and Margaret Rose. Directed by Rose and Michael Laun

Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Main Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento

When: Previews through 2 p.m. Saturday; opens 8 p.m. Saturday; continues through Sunday, May 14; 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Cost: $15-38

Information: 916-443-6722 or tickets.sactheatre.org

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