February 1, 2021
The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Theatre program presents a four-chapter original audio musical theatre production, “The Life of Mary Rogers; An Incredible, Plausible, Entirely Made Up, True Story from 1841,” with book by BMCC Theatre Professors Katherine Kavanagh and Tariq Hamami and lyrics by Kavanagh, Hamami and guest composer Thomas Hodges. Theatre Professor Carol Johnson was the project’s vocal coach.
All four episodes are available at the production’s homepage located on the BMCC website as well as audio platforms including Apple podcasts. The show’s creators and cast will also host a live-streamed event on February 5 at 7 p.m.
The musical tells the story of Mary Cecelia Rogers, who worked in a cigar shop in 1840’s era— lower Manhattan—a few blocks from where the BMCC campus now stands. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Rogers’ death were widely reported by tabloid newspapers of the era and inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”
Historians have said newspaper editors, government officials and religious advocates alike sensationalized the circumstances surrounding Rogers’ death and used it as part of a crusade against women’s independence including reproductive choice.
This production is told from Mary Rogers’ perspective. As she fights to hold onto her independence, an untimely pregnancy throws her life into chaos. The story details rising tensions between loved ones over the choices Mary can make at the time.
“There is so much about the specific time period and place that Mary lived that fascinates me—especially because she lived and worked in the neighborhood surrounding BMCC,” explained Kavanagh. “I was interested in trying to find out more about who she was in life. I discovered that much of what was written about her death was fabricated. If you look her up online, often what comes up is a statement about her being a ‘murder victim,’ but, in fact, that is not how she died.”
Pandemic prevents production from reaching stage, team adapts to podcast format
The show was originally set to be staged live at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center Theatre 2 in Spring 2020 but was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although faculty and students who had first brought the characters in the show to life in rehearsals were heartbroken at the time, the show did in fact—go on—just in a different format.
“It was disappointing that we never got a chance to perform the show on stage—we were so close,” said Kavanagh. “Costumes had been ordered, props and furniture pieces were starting to arrive, when CUNY switched to remote learning due to COVID. But then, the Theatre Program invited us to continue into the fall, all of us thinking we’d be able to put the show up on stage by December 2020.”
The continued scourge of COVID prevented that. Instead, Kavanagh adapted the show to become an audio file musical divided into four parts. Although the audio production would prove technologically and logistically challenging, the show’s creators and the student actors persevered remotely.
“Not everyone had a private place to rehearse and record, and many of the students had temporarily left New York City,” said Kavanagh. “Between us all, we’re spread out across six different states, in different time zones and none of us had professional equipment. But we did have heart and discipline and a desire to tell this story.”
For example, Theatre major and Manhattan resident Mary Ann Ceron, who plays Phebe Rogers, went so far as to convince her husband to clear out his walk-in closet so she could record her scenes in a makeshift sound studio.
“I soundproofed it, bought a black shower curtain for $1.99 and used that as my background,” said Ceron. “I even bought a dress from the thrift shop and a tea cup, saucer and milk holder that looks like it came straight out of the year 1841. I wore the dress and an old pair of boots every time I rehearsed or recorded my scenes.”
Theatre major Christian Pacheco, who plays Daniel, was forced to move temporarily back to his hometown of New Richmond, Wisconsin where he rehearsed and developed his character on his own. He said despite being nervous about the transition to a podcast format, he was still deeply in love with the show and the character he portrays.
“Still, it became very lonely and not what I was used to,” said Pacheco. “Not being able to be in the same room with everyone else definitely made it difficult. So, I worked on my articulation and diction to make sure Daniel still came across as a joyful, funny and a life-of-the-party kind of guy that loves Mary Rogers with all of his heart, although he still does not understand the woman that she is.”
Penda Sissko, who plays Elizabeth, said performing through a computer screen in her Brooklyn home had its challenges.
“For one, you don’t have that physical connection with the cast members as you would on stage so you have to find a way to connect through a screen,” said Sissko. “But there are definitely advantages for our show being in this format. Our work will get to reach people around the world because now everyone has access to it instead of the hundreds of people that would have gotten to see it in person so that’s cool.”
Alexandra Toro, also a theatre major, plays Mary Rogers said in Spring 2020, before COVID, she and the other cast and crew had props and stage blocking that communicated each scene in the show through physical expression.
“We had to dig deeper into the message we wanted our characters to send through our voices in the audio format,” said Toro who is home in Brooklyn.
She reworked her performance by digging deeply into the message she could send through her voice. She hopes listeners to the show take away that Mary was young woman who was trying to build a name for herself.“She wanted her man, but definitely didn’t need one,” said Toro. “She had friends, stayed out a little past her curfew, and went to protests and lectures for women’s rights. Ultimately, we adapted this show to a new platform to keep this it alive no matter the circumstances thrown at us.”
- Stage production scheduled for Spring 2020 delayed by pandemic
- Cast and creative team hosting virtual event February 5 at 7 p.m.
- Production is based on life of Mary Rogers who worked in 1840’s cigar shop near what is now BMCC