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Drama in the dance hall

New musical inspired by history of Gold Rush era sex workers opens in Anchorage

Posted: July 25, 2012 - 11:02pm

Lael Morgan’s “Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush: Secret History of the Far North” has garnered critical praise and accumulated readers since it came out in 1989. The book recorded the stories of dance hall girls, madams and prostitutes who entertained the hordes of fortune-seekers that flooded north more than a century ago.

Morgan’s history remains one of the most popular books ever written by an Alaskan -- particularly in Alaska -- and has now inspired a new musical.

“Gold Rush Girls,” by the husband-wife team of Jerry and Karmo Sanders, will open at Cyrano’s in Anchorage on Friday and run through Sept. 2.

The genesis of the musical came 10 years after the book came out. Morgan had moved to Maine to work at a now-defunct periodical, the Casco Bay Weekly, and Karmo was assigned to be her assistant. In the course of their working together, Karmo came across Morgan’s book.

“I started reading it and said, ‘I know these girlfriends,’ “ Karmo said during an interview at Cyrano’s earlier this month.

When she came home, Jerry, a composer with long experience in rock bands and musical education, was writing a song. A light bulb clicked on and they decided to use the “Good Time Girls” material to make a musical.

When the Sanderses approached Morgan with their idea, she was somewhat surprised, she said. “I’d never really thought of it in that light. And I didn’t know how talented they were. And I was a little concerned that they’d never spent time in the West or in the North. But I said, ‘Go for it!’ “

The Sanderses, though, had no doubts. “The book doesn’t read like an academic history,” said Karmo. “It sucks you in. It’s a real page-turner.”

“I think Lael has always seen the dramatic potential in these characters,” said Jerry.

The project was somewhat delayed by other jobs, including a long New York run of a full-length musical for kids that Jerry had written. “We were also the actors and dancers,” he said.

“We almost made a living,” Karmo noted.

“Actually, we made a pretty good living by show business standards,” Jerry rejoined.

In 2002, Morgan was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame and, following the ceremony, had coffee with Sandy Harper, Cyrano’s co-founder and producing artistic director. Harper is the person who had nominated Morgan for the honor.

“Lael told me that Karmo and Jerry were working on a musical based on her book,” Harper said. “And I thought it would make sense to do it in Alaska.

“It costs a bit more than what we usually do, because it’s a musical with a big cast. But we’ve had sponsorship from the Atwood and Rasmuson foundations.”

“Now, here we are, 10 years later, ready to open a full-length musical,” said Karmo.

The pair has made their first trip to Alaska to work on the show.

“To be here at the moment it becomes manifest, working with some really fine performers and crew, is just remarkable,” said Jerry. “I think our biggest surprise is finding that (the show) is better than we thought.”

The script doesn’t follow any one person’s biography, said Jerry Sanders. “It’s inspired by several of the biographies. We tried to take the flavor and follow the spirit of the book.”

Actress Katie Strock described the characters as “a montage” of the real-life personalities found in Morgan’s book.

Strock plays the key role of Eudora, owner of a gold camp establishment. “She’s escaping her past,” she said. “But her past comes up to haunt her.”

Eudora’s past includes a stint in the red light district of New Orleans under the thumb of an abusive man, said Jerry. “She runs off with a piano player and joins the Gold Rush. They think they’re safe, but the villain follows them.”

Anchorage theater veteran Ed Bourgeois plays the villain. He’s also directing the show. “It’s fun,” he said. “But I’m going to end up with a lot more gray hair by the time it’s done.”

Other key characters include Lilly, one of Eudora’s girls, played by Regina MacDonald. “She likes liquor too much and has ambitions,” MacDonald said. When she sees the opportunity to move up in the establishment, she’s ready to take it, whatever the cost to others.

Ali de Guzman is the starry-eyed Rose. “She’s innocent, funny, has a wild side,” de Guzman said. “She’s also semi-clairvoyant.”

Rose is the only character who can see and hear the spirit of a Tlingit woman who has died in a tragedy that involves other characters in the script. That role is sung by Christina Gagnon, an opera singer. “I’m a ghost, but I get to sing in my operatic voice,” she said. “I was a little worried about the size of the space, but it’s fun to sing high and loud.”

Fittingly, her music is somewhat different, according to production notes. She is not a “good time girl” like the rest of the female cast. “Her longing, lyrical songs are a mourning lamentation for a world destroyed, and angelic whispers to lighten the human spirit. She is of another world.”

Most of the music is a conscious attempt to “set the tone of the period,” said Bourgeois.

It includes nods to ragtime, Gay ‘90s ballads, even some patter material in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. “But those get morphed into music to match the dramatic action,” said Jerry.

The show requires a lot of ensemble work, Stock said. “There are some tight harmonies and the rhythms can be pretty tricky.”

“But the ballads are gorgeous,” de Guzman enthused. “And the up-tempo numbers are great.”

Pianist Dan McElrath is in charge of the music direction. In addition to Bourgeois, male members of the cast include John Fraser as a poetic mining engineer, Leo Grinberg as a callow Englishman trying his luck in the stampede and Alex Pierce as Ike, Eudora’s piano-playing boyfriend and business partner.

BUSINESSWOMEN

The sex trade in the Gold Rush was indeed about business, said Morgan. Big business.

She became interested in the topic as a young reporter in Fairbanks in 1965.

“They were doing a project downtown and ripping down the old red light district,” she recalled. “When I looked into it, it turned out that all of the titles to the property went back to the first families of Fairbanks,” whose descendents weren’t always open to talking about their family background.

“I was fascinated,” Morgan said.

Over years of research, she discovered events that had been hidden for decades. For instance: Episcopal churchman Hudson Stuck, the same deacon who led the first successful climb to the summit of Mount McKinley, organized what miners called “the line.”

Troubled by the violence and lawlessness he encountered in the gold fields, particularly by how the women were controlled by their pimps, Stuck arranged for the girls to buy the land on which their places of business stood.

“It meant they could be independent,” Morgan said, managing their time, money and client relations.

Banks were few and tight-fisted, so many miners entrusted their earnings to the women of the line, with whom they often developed a level of trust over time.

“The girls invested soundly,” Morgan said. “They were soon buying property, which most women in America still couldn’t do.”

Their success and influence in the region was reflected in the first act of the first Territorial Legislature in 1913; the all-male assembly immediately gave Alaska women the right to vote -- seven years before the franchise was extended to their more respectable sisters in America at large.

• Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or (907) 257-4332.

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