It has been a long and convoluted journey to Saturday’s premiere of “Sweet Land, the Musical,” about a German woman who immigrated to the U.S. a century ago to marry a Norwegian-American bachelor farmer.
Where to begin?
The story actually starts in the childhood of Minnesota writer Will Weaver, 67. As a boy growing up in the Detroit Lakes-Park Rapids region of northern Minnesota, Weaver heard a tale from his grandfather about a woman who came over from Europe to be wed, but was met by opposition in the community. Even without official sanction, the couple lived together as man and wife.
“There was a smile in his telling of that story and the hint of something untoward,” Weaver recalled. That fragment stuck with him, and when he became an adult, he spun it into “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” a short story that became his first published work in 1982.
When the Star Tribune republished it in 1989, filmmaker Ali Selim read it and was spellbound.
“I have a sense of nostalgia about heritage,” said Selim. “My mother’s parents came on a wagon train and homesteaded. I was just fascinated by the story.”
It was 16 more years before Selim completed “Sweet Land,” a feature film based on the tale that won accolades and became an indie cause célèbre.
That’s where theater director and producer Perrin Post comes into the story. She fell hard for the movie, whose stars included Alan Cumming alongside Twin Cities stalwarts such as Stephen Yoakam, Raye Birk and Kirsten Frantzich.
“I know people in the film — that’s why I went to see it at first — but the story really stuck with me because it reminded me a lot about my relatives, my grandparents, who came over [from Europe],” she said. “Then I thought, ‘God, this would make a really cool theater show.’ ”
Eight years after she first started working on it, her musical version of “Sweet Land” will open at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
“Whew!” she said in relief.
The story centers on Inge Altenburg, a German who fled the war that ravaged Europe and killed her family. She winds up in Norway, working for a family whose son, Olaf Torvik, has established a farm in Minnesota’s Hubbard County. They send Inge to Minnesota to marry him.
But there’s a problem. It is 1920, and although the Great War is over, Germans are still viewed with suspicion. Priests and judges alike refuse to marry the couple, so Olaf and Inge basically say, “To hell with it. We’re married in our hearts and souls anyway.” The former strangers grow to love each other.
“The thing that’s compelling about this story is that it’s very specific to Minnesota, to a certain era,” said Ann Michels, who plays Inge and was the first performer Post tapped for the project. “But it’s also a universal story about people in a community looking with suspicion and fear at an immigrant, an outsider.”
That broader resonance was one of the reasons Post persisted in her dream. She knew it would be difficult to convert the film to a stage work. But she did not realize how challenging it would be.
“Were there moments that I wanted to give up? Sure. Many.”
She wrote a script and had a reading at her home. Michels was there for that initial read and every one since. Once Post realized it should be a musical, she reached out to the composer who had scored the film, Mark Orton. He was tied up with other projects and suggested Dina Maccabee, a Bay Area-based violinist and composer.
“What we were looking for was someone who understood these characters, and can express in music all they’re feeling in the long pauses and moments of quiet,” she said. “Hooking up with Dina was a match made in heaven.”
Post, who had written the initial book and was also directing, brought in Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, a musical theater actor, to co-write the book and do the lyrics.
It took no fewer than five workshops to yield the musical that premieres this weekend; one was underwritten by a crowdfunding campaign and another was made possible by a State Arts Board grant. The final step was a summer workshop in 2015 at the Lundstrum Performing Arts center in Minneapolis, to which Post invited theater leaders from across the Twin Cities area. Three were keenly interested: Park Square, Illusion and the History Theatre, whose artistic director, Ron Peluso, closed the deal.
“We knew we didn’t want it to be a one-off thing that I did with my company and limited resources, but needed for it to have a life,” said Post, who cut her teeth staging musicals at smaller venues and worked with Peluso on the 2007 musical “Hormel Girls.”
“It’s important now at a time when we’re talking a lot about immigration. It’s an evergreen story of America.”