Rosetta: The making of a musical

Composer Jenn Grinels and director Merideth Kaye Clark discuss the concert version of a musical about a woman who fought in the Civil War

Of the 2.27 million soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, an estimated 400 were women. They bound their breasts and cut their hair, claiming their right to fight and die alongside their male counterparts.

“The notion of a woman in pants was not only illegal, but just so foreign that all women had to do was put on pants and they would register as male to other men,” says singer-songwriter Jenn Grinels, who is the composer of The Rosetta Project, a folk-rock musical about a Union soldier named Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

A period photograph of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman in her Union army uniform.

Wakeman enlisted when she was 19 and was killed in 1864, but her experiences were immortalized in the book An Uncommon Soldier, a collection of the letters she wrote during the war. “She felt like a badass and I think that’s what I loved most about the letters,” Grinels says. “She wasn’t ever nervous. She never expressed worry about being found out.”

On the eve of the concert version of The Rosetta Project—which will lay the groundwork for a hoped-for Broadway premiere—Grinels and director Meredith Kaye Clark spoke to Arts Watch about Wakeman’s legacy, the complexities of writing about a trailblazing teenager, and their collaboration with Jenna Tamimi, a gender and identity dramaturg who helped them investigate the ambiguities that reverberate through Wakeman’s story.

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ARTSWATCH: It’s amazing that Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was just a kid when she fought in the Civil War. How did you deal with that musically?

JENN GRINELS: I wanted to write something that felt universal—like maybe what a lot of people feel when they’re a senior in high school or going into college, that search for self and that search for identity. I kind of put myself in that place and wrote it, and then when it came time to cast it, it was so important that we actually have teenagers playing these parts, because it makes it so devastating to reinforce the fact that they were kids.

Merideth, how did you become involved with the project, and what initially interested you about it?

MERIDETH KAYE CLARK: Jenn and I are longtime best friends and so I have been following this project since it started five years ago. The Sarah Rosetta Wakeman story is so relevant and so timely and just really speaks to my heart in terms of fighting for equality and what did that mean in 1864 for this young girl? And how, through a modern lens, can we look back at that time and make a comment about where we are or where we haven’t gotten to in the last 150 years?

Composer Jenn Grinels (left) and director Merideth Kaye Clark at rehearsal. Photo: Rebecca Boyd

How did Wakeman’s letters influence the songs?

JG: I wouldn’t say that it was as easy as, “This is a novel and I can roll it over into song lyrics.” I would say that 90 percent of it was to read the letters over and over … and also just realize that I would have to take liberties and make some choices and fill in what I didn’t know. There were so many letters that were like, “Hey mom and dad. Nothing happened. Talk to you later.” It was like detective work.

Why are folk-rock music and this particular narrative a good match?

JG: I love the “Brother, Where Art Thou?,” old-school bluegrass harmonies that are in there. There’s a song called “Good Night Sun, Hello Moon,” and the goal for that was to write a lullaby. I wanted to write something that could have been written in 1860 but could also be popular today.

I feel like there’s a timelessness to the songs.

JG: That was definitely an aim. [I was inspired by] “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Beautiful Dreamer”….and also Brandi Carlile and Mumford & Sons. I kind of joined those two worlds.

Do either of you want to talk about your work with your gender and identity dramaturg?

MKC: Jenn and I are cisgender white women in 2021 in Portland, Oregon. There was a lot packed into Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s body and brain that we will never understand. Her letters do not give us enough information so that we can use her words to express her gender and how she would have identified. And I think we understood pretty quickly the limitations of our experience and wanted to have somebody on our team who could guide the project and had an educational and scholastic and historical view of the topics that we’re trying to address.

The “Rosetta” squad, at Bridgetown Conservatory for Musical Theatre, from left: Sophie MacKay, Jason Nuesa, Rick Lewis, Jenna Tamimi, Merideth Kaye Clark, Ella Korn, Clayton Lukens, Jenn Grinels, William Aamold, Emma Hearn, Emily Shaindlin. Photo: Rebecca Boyd

Do you have to strike a balance between not necessarily saying, “Wakeman was nonbinary,” while also leaving open the possibility that she would have identified as nonbinary or as a trans man had they had that term back then?

JG: It was a huge challenge in terms of writing the lyrics. When am I making up too much and when am I staying true to her? That was such a puzzle to me, and I think that’s why it took so long to write the musical. The decisions I made were really based on little tiny clues, or things that I could grab onto lyrically. I could tell that she was pleased when she tried on her uniform for the first time, which she wrote to her parents about. I wrote about that joy … but I don’t know the specific inner workings of what that meant for her.

There’s kind of always a divide between people that are like, “I think that she may have gone on to be someone that would consider themselves trans,” and [people who say], “I think that she just really enjoyed the opportunities that were afforded to men during the time. She liked the money, she liked the freedom, she liked all of those things enough to hang onto a male identity.”

Is the most radical element of The Rosetta Project that you can tell a story about this incredible, trailblazing woman and you don’t have to make her totally virtuous?

MKC: I just had a physical reaction to what you said, like I want to cry. It’s exactly what you just said. I kept looking in the letters, wanting her to say, “I can’t wait until we win and everything will be right in America.” There is no sense of that in her words, and that’s what I think Jenn has done an amazing job with. She doesn’t try to make Rosetta a hero or a saint. She was a real, complicated person living in a complicated time.

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The Rosetta Project concert will be performed at 7 p.m. July 23 and 24 at Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre in North Portland. More info: https://www.jenngrinels.com/rosettaproject

About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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