Lullabies About Migrant Workers? Si Khan's New Musical "Silver Spoon" and Class War in the Theater

Silver Spoon by Amy Merrill and Si Kahn. Directed by Daniel Gidron. World Premiere production staged by the Nora Theatre at the Central Square Theatre, Cambridge, MA, through June 19, 2011


I like to think, with George Santyana, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, remembering the past offers no automatic inoculation against stereotyping it.

Folksinger Si Kahn and playwright Amy Merrill have apparently been noshing together over shared memories for 40 years. They premiered their new musical, Silver Spoon, this week in Cambridge, MA, a congenial setting since in Cambridge, truth be told, the ideals of the late 1960s and early 1970s have never really died: they’ve just migrated to internet fundraising.

At curtain up a pair of star-crossed lovers is lolling in bed with the New York Times after having just enjoyed some great sex. Dan Horowitz (Edward T. Joy) is the red-diaper son of an intolerant yenta of a Stalinist mother, Marilyn (Rena Baskin) and an aspiring United Farm Worker organizer. His girl, Polly Bullock (Kara Manson), is hiding a big secret: she’s an heiress working for her beloved, mildly-racist, stockbroker grandfather Freddy (Peter Edmund Haydu) by day even as she underwrites and edits a radical alternative newspaper after hours.

Their conflicts are of a particular type: “Should I give myself to love,” Dan sings, “or go and get myself arrested?” Well, both, as it turns out. The lovers will have to deal with a crisis when Polly, promoted to VP of Communications for the family’s Sunshine Foods grocery chain, has to choose whether to disrupt the boycott outside or support her lover and their shared ideals. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is going to blow on that one.

Silver Spoon takes place in a rhetorical space, on a cramped set designed by Eric Levenson that runs a collage of classic political posters over the stage floor and up the sides of a flattened New York skyline, images that are repeated in the framed prints hung over the kitchen table and beds of apartments in Brooklyn and on Park Avenue. Merrill and Kahn clearly appreciate the gravitas of the historical events they weave into their drama—the legacy of the 1911 Triangle Fire that took the lives of immigrant seamstresses, the way participating in Freedom Rides to Selma could change a sheltered princess into an activist—and even mine their material for fond absurdities, such as that French wine isn’t prohibited under the grape boycott and that in California, Dan is rebuffed by an exasperated Farmworker organizer who recognizes him as just another do-gooder New Yorker who doesn’t speak Spanish.

Composer Si Kahn, noted for his own protest songs and community organizing, has written melodies fit for singing around a campfire, chorales that go down easy on the ear and just as easily adapt to reprises with new, different lyrics. His tunes are played with sweet, down-home restraint by a four-piece band sheltered in an upstage niche, directed by pianist Rodney Allan Bush.

Kahn has been lucky to work with his arranger, Larry Hochman, who recently orchestrated The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Silver Spoon is at its strongest when a lullaby evolves into a ballad about the arrest of a group of undocumented migrant workers. A duet between Marilyn and Freddy, companionably exchanging impressions of their headstrong kids as they share a Washington Square park bench, strikes just the right, rueful touch. 

Each of the actors in Silver Spoon is an apt physical type: Joy looks a bit like a Jewish Jay Leno, Manson has the Pollyanna sweetness of a girl raised to hair bands and white gloves, Baskin’s alert walk makes me believe a picket line qualifies as her daily exercise, and Haydu’s posture shows the silkiness of easy privilege. Yet this new musical is, at best, a lefty valentine and a missed opportunity. What might have happened if Merrill and Kahn had traded ideology for idiosyncrasy, allowing each character to share not just classic back stories but an exploration of the era’s mixed messages? Now that would be a Silver Spoon worth savoring.

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