In the fall semester, alumni Peter Mills ’95 and Cara Reichel ’96 of Prospect Theater Company taught a Princeton Atelier seminar in which undergraduates created original musical theater works inspired by the work of the Princeton & Slavery Project. (Readings of a one-act musical drawn from their compositions will be presented at Nassau Hall Jan. 13.) In this audio feature, PAW intern Douglas Corzine ’20, a student in the course, takes us inside the challenges of telling these compelling stories in musical form.

Former slave James Collins Johnson, left, pictured on campus circa 1890, is the subject of one of the atelier songs.
Princeton University Archives


TRANSCRIPT

Douglas Corzine: Pete Mills ’95 and Cara Reichel ’96 have spent 20 years writing musicals, mainly light-hearted ones. Now they’re helping to musicalize something a lot less upbeat: slavery.

Cara Reichel: It’s crowded here tonight! I’m Cara, and I run Prospect Theater Company. And this is my husband Pete, who’s a composer-lyricist, and his show The Honeymooners you will hopefully be hearing more about soon.

DC: That’s tape from a benefit concert last spring, and that’s how Cara Reichel introduces herself. She directs and produces new musicals; her husband, Pete Mills, writes them. Cara and Pete never thought of themselves as teachers—but Martha Sandweiss did. She’s a history professor at Princeton University. Mills says they met through a fellowship program, back in 2015.

Pete Mills: She was already planning and developing all of the things that were going to go under the umbrella of this larger Princeton and Slavery Project.

DC: Sandweiss created the project in 2013 to explore Princeton’s historical ties to the institution of slavery. She spent years collecting stories — stories of enslaved individuals living on campus and slaveholding University presidents.    

Sandweiss thought someone should tell those stories, and talking to Cara and Pete, she got an idea: a creative course where students would musicalize her research.                                                               

PM: That sounded far-fetched to us at the time, to come to Princeton as professors for a semester and lead this course, and on this subject matter, no less. You’re like ‘OK, well, you know, it sounds intriguing… .’

DC: Eventually, he and Cara were convinced. This semester, they’ve worked with 11 students to write a one-act musical about Princeton and slavery that will premiere on January 13 in Nassau Hall.

Pete knows how strange that sounds. but he says musical theater has a history of addressing difficult topics.

PM: We looked at musicals that were set in that period—1776, that song “Molasses to Rum” brilliantly musicalizes the whole triangle trade.

SONG: Gentlemen, you mustn’t think that our northern friends see our black slaves as merely figures in a ledger. Oh, no! They see them as figures on a block.

PM: That was able to really lay out a complex social issue in a way that was musical. “The Ballad of Booth,” from Assassins? It simultaneously is able to be this beautiful hymn to the Southland, and yet still so ugly and racist at the same time.

The music does it so beautifully, and we’re like following and feeling why he did what he did.

SONG: The country is not what it was… [gunshot]

PM: I think it’s just amazing the way music can do that — so that excites me, the idea that music can maybe let us get at some of these issues in a way that we can’t by simply reading the essays about them and learning the history and what happened.  

DC: Pete and Cara want the material to feel personal. In class — I’m actually in their class — they’ve pushed unconventional ideas for adapting the material. One of my classmates proposed a ballad for two roommates torn apart by the Civil War; Pete and Cara suggested something less somber — maybe something humorous.

PM: It makes people open up a little bit more, actually, if you can do that…

CR: …because I feel like people are going to be very stressed coming into this thing, you know? And so, if we find a moment where it can be like… “OK, I can laugh,” I think it—

PM: It’ll make the moving, serious stuff that much more impactful.

DC: Cara wondered about tensions between roommates—maybe one of them was always throwing his hosiery around. My classmates thought they’d rather underscore the ideological differences between the roommates, but it got them thinking.

Jackson Artis ’20: It should be jokes that are funny, but as soon as you laugh you’re like “oh, that was not…” Not like objectively funny things, where it’s just like “oh, don’t throw your underwear around!”

PM: That’s… that’s really interesting. Like “what did I just laugh at?”

CR: Yeah.

JA: Just like stuff that’s actually “Ha… oh.”

DC: That’s exactly what Cara is hoping for — expecting musical theater razzle-dazzle, the audience might be caught off-guard. They might be uncomfortable.

For Pete and Cara, there’s a lot that’s uncomfortable about this project. They met at Princeton, where they were undergrads in the mid-’90s. And Pete, whose Princeton connections extend even farther into the past, says picking at the sores of history can be tough.

PM: I was class of 1995; my dad was class of 1965. Realizing that you come from that part of society that is descended from old Princeton, yeah, makes it that much more real to you. You’re like—oh my gosh, these are my people. Wow, where would they have stood when this all happened, whether or not they were, like, involved in anything. But gosh, you know, it’s like… it’s not just history.

DC: As a student in the course, I felt the same way. My grandfather graduated from Princeton in 1947. His father graduated in 1914. Like me, they came to Princeton from the South: Nashville, Tennessee.

As the semester continued, the music we were writing became more and more personal. We incorporated a modern-day framing device.

PM: I’m very inclined, because we’re so concerned with the undergrads’ perspective on all of this history, to kind of let their musical intuitions guide it and not impose my own on it — because it should be very personal.

DC: Freshman Gus Binnie wrote a song about James Johnson [1], who escaped slavery, made it to New Jersey, and got a job at the University, only to have an undergrad recognize him as a fugitive from his neighbor’s plantation. The student turned him in, and he lost his freedom.

SONG: I left Maryland…

DC: That’s Gus, singing an early draft of the song. He’s been trading voice memos and drafts of sheet music with Pete for months. That’s kind of the way the course has worked.

SONG: I left Maryland, with voices screaming “freedom” in my ears…

DC: Freedom? Slavery? Racial, educational, and socioeconomic privilege? Cara and Pete gave students theatrical tools, new ways to talk about those issues.

But students like Taylor Pearson ’18 shaped the new musical. Taylor wanted to frame the historical vignettes with reenactments of the Black Justice League’s 2015 protests in Nassau Hall, the same building that’s hosting this production. She says that context felt intuitive.

Taylor Pearson: The more I’ve talked to people who were involved in the Black Justice League protests, I’ve realized how important it was to Princeton’s history. Taking this class in my final month at Princeton, I felt I can really make a change. I wanted to make our show important, lasting, and also recognize the history that’s being made every day on campus.

DC: Like Pete says, “It’s not just history.”

For the Princeton Alumni Weekly, I’m Douglas Corzine.