Katya Stanislavskaya, composer and lyricist of new musical Resident Alien, writes about the impetus behind the show and the timely issues it portrays.
Americans excel at small talk: flashing a toothy smile, feigning attention, and finding that one question – generic, but with an attempt at specificity—to get the conversation going. When I introduce myself (why with my 5-syllable last name), I inevitably get the same generic/specific question: “So, why did your family decide to emigrate from the USSR?”
I’ve run the gamut of emotions upon hearing this question over the last 25 years. Bewilderment: don’t you read the papers? Anger: why don’t you look past your nose and your local news? Sadness: doesn’t anyone study history? Isolation: I will never be understood. Sometimes, when in a patient mood, I tried explaining. Other times, I gave a brief, categorical answer, “Because it’s better here.”
There were several disparate impetuses to put these thoughts, feelings, and “historical lessons” into a musical. Once, during a millionth performance of a show I was music directing, I stared at the stage drenched in a blue light and thought, “it looks like the actor is under water.” Suddenly, an image of myself at age 12 flashed across my mind: surrounded by American teenagers who were speaking to me, or about me, and I didn’t understand a word. The metaphor grew: immigration feels like being submerged under water and forcibly held down, until your lungs morph into gills and you adapt. Or not. People within the same family can react differently to being displaced. I knew that if I ever wrote a song about immigration, this would be a central leitmotif. It would have to have odd time signatures, because the character would be a fish out of water… or rather a mammal IN water? Eventually, “Underwater” became one of the most representative songs from Resident Alien.
The next impetus came many years later, as I was learning how to be a ballet accompanist. It felt like learning two new languages at once: French (for terminology such as pas de bourre, grand battement, etc.) and the actual visual/body language of the dancers. As I struggled to follow along, I had a thought: what if I had to learn all this before I had a strong command of English? And so, the song “I Speak Music” was born. It was the first song I actually finished, taught to actors, and presented (in the BMI Workshop). I knew this was the Act I Finale—so essentially I started writing the musical from the middle, and then branched out backward and forward.
Resident Alien is not autobiographical; my life and family history are—thankfully–a lot less “interesting” than those of the Berdichevsky family’s. But biographical tidbits from my fellow immigrants lives, as well as my own feelings and convictions, made their way into each of the three protagonists. I’d like to think that Resident Alien uses specific dramatic circumstances to deal with universal issues. Immigration (with its warring sisters, assimilation and nostalgia) is an inherently American theme. As we enter a new political era of increased nationalism, wall-building, and the lurking presence of Vladimir Putin, I think Resident Alien is especially relevant. I look forward to presenting it in full to a New York audience.