"We're all about walking the tightrope where it might go horribly wrong," says the Institution Theater's Asaf Ronen. "And I think people kind of appreciate that about what we do."
He's talking about the Institution's new show Immigrants, the Musical! (Part One), which is a pretty ambition undertaking even for the risk-positive Institution. It's not just an improvised play, it's an improvised musical that's based on the real-life, sometimes funny and sometimes painful memories of its cast, which aims to explore the American immigrant experience in a different way every night. And it's stylistically inspired by Hamilton, which means that the performers all had to learn to rap and will be improvising songs for each show.
The show's the brainchild of Lahari Samineni, who was inspired by both Hamilton and her own family history. "I was listening to Hamilton... for six months obsessively," she says. "And one day I thought about my father, who came here from India in the 1960s, and I felt that there was a story to tell. And the story that we as immigrants all have to tell... [about] how much we love this country as people that migrate here."
She pitched the idea to the Institution, and even before they agreed to stage the show, she approached Tosin Awofeso (himself also the child of an immigrant father) about serving as musical director. "And I was like 'Yes!'" he says. "And it was like, 'Are you sure? You're going to have to teach people to rap.'" And I was like, 'I got it. Let's do it.'"
Samineni and Ronen (who was born in Israel) are co-directing the show, with a cast made up of performers who are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. They're all bringing stories of their own life (or their family's), which serve as the starting point for each show.
"These stories that you hear from the cast are beautiful and the emotions that come out of them are raw and honest," says Samineni. "And that's what improv, I think, ideally is. Raw and honest."
The cast has found that many of those stories are very similar, even if the people involved immigrated from different countries. "I think to me, the most fascinating thing I've been seeing is how -- the cast is immigrated from all over the world -- and how many times we've all been watching the scenes in front of us during rehearsal, and it's exactly our life and exactly like our parents," says Awofeso. "It's totally relatable."
"We're kind of looking at how to improvise a little differently when you're in a multicultural cast," says Ronen. "For example, we had someone who had to stop a scene... and she was like 'Okay, you're playing a person of your culture and I'm supposed to name you in this scene, but I don't want to be racist in how I name you.'"
That moment inspired Ronen to embrace such questions. "Let's speak that way theatrically," he says. "Break the scene, have that conversation in front of the audience, and then go back."
The "Part One" at the end of the title could be a portent of more Immigrants to come after this first run, or it could just be a joke in the style of Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1. "It potentially is [a joke], or it's an invitation for us to return again," says Ronen. "We haven't decided which it is -- we'll see after the run," he laughs, adding, "We also want people to understand that for as serious as the content is, there's also a lot of humor to what we're doing."