By Sandy Hodge
What do Broadway and White Hall, Virginia, have in common? White Hall resident Laura Good!
Composer and writer Laura Good, who lives in White Hall, and her twin sister, Linda Good, who lives in Los Angeles, have seen the bright lights of Broadway up close and personal. A musical they just wrote, LadyShip, recently premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box on 42nd St, one of only 10 chosen from 500 worldwide. NYMF provides a launching pad for the next generation of musicals and their creators to ensure the continued vitality of America’s musical theatre.
Opening to standing ovations and rave reviews in mid-July, LadyShip’s performances drew nearly 1,000 people, including a group of 12 of Laura’s friends from around Crozet. The musical also won three festival finalist awards: Best Overall Design, Outstanding Lead Performer and Outstanding Supporting Performer.
LadyShip, while fictionalized, is based on true historical events. The story centers on Alice and Mary Reed, two impoverished Irish teenage sisters falsely accused and harshly punished by members of the privileged English elite. Their sentence: seven years in the new Australian penal colony, following a harrowing ten-month overseas voyage as captive criminals. They are accompanied en route by an array of figures representing the microcosm of convicted females (the married mother who misses her children; the street-smart daughter of a sailor; the bankrupt noble woman whose gambling husband depleted her fortune; and the sweet young orphan girl) as well as the seamen who control them (the dutiful captain who is just following orders; the captain’s entitled nephew/lieutenant who thinks he’s above the rules; the brutish drunken sailor; and the nice guy who wants to help Mary).
In songs and dialogue, the characters tell the story of the women being confined below deck in squalid conditions, with no fresh air and not enough food or water, overworked and rarely paid, enduring seasickness and abuse from the men. They were subjected to beatings, rape, disease and death, and yet, despite it all, the underlying mood of the show is positive and uplifting. Throughout their prolonged ordeal, the women bond with each other, stay strong, rise up, and find ways to survive—a message of female empowerment that seems equally suited to our present times than to an era in which they had no control or recourse.
The storyline came from the time when Laura lived in Australia. Some of her friends there talked about their distant relatives who were women convicts who “stole a loaf of bread and got sent down under.” Through research, she discovered that political, economic and religious conditions at the time, just after the Revolutionary War, were such that the men having returned from the war were competing against young women for jobs. To combat this, legislation was enacted called the “female servant tax,” which taxed anyone who employed a young woman over the age of 15. In religious terms, if you were poor you had moral failings, although it was out of necessity that young women turned to prostitution, stealing bread to feed their children, and other petty crimes to survive. The goal if the era was to rid London of “undesirables.”
After England lost the Revolutionary War, it could no longer send convicts to America. Meanwhile, England wanted to populate Australia, and thus the “tamers and breeders” program was established. Young women of child-bearing age and mostly lower socioeconomic levels were often falsely accused, convicted and threatened with being put to death. They were told instead of killing you, we’ll send you to Australia. This lasted for almost 70 years and more than 25,000 women were sent against their will. Ironically, it saved the colony. When the first fleet of male convicts was sent, the colonists and convicts soon started starving as the land was difficult to farm. They were often attacked by aborigines and started “running wild” with few women around to “tame” them. The English government felt the stability of marriage and a family would help keep the men in line and, as it says in the song from LadyShip, “The Bloody Code,” this arrangement “killed two birds with a solitary stone.”
Music has always been a part of Laura and Linda’s life. They were the last of five daughters raised by a single mom after their father left when they were young. Their mom, with designs on a career as an opera singer, gave it up to marry and have a family. The show is dedicated to their mother, and the lead character, Alice, is named after her. In real life, their mom portrayed the story of the women on LadyShip: women who, in spite in all of the severe hardship, found a way to survive. Growing up, music for the family was a way to cope with the difficult times they faced. From a young age, both Linda and Laura could just hear something and play it. Raised in Chicago by way of Ohio and Mexico City, the twins are self-taught musicians who learned piano, guitar and songwriting by studying Beatles songs. Using their childhood nickname “Twigs” as their band name, the duo has released five CDs. After being a well-known part of the alternative pop scene in Chicago, they moved to California in 2000, which launched their careers as songwriters and producers. Their older sister was a professional flute player. Another, a foreign language teacher, sings French cabaret all over the world and a third is a professional choreographer.
The twins have always wanted to write a musical. LadyShip took them three years. Even though they had been writing music for a long time, they had to research how to write a musical as it was a different style of songwriting. Once they came up with the idea to write LadyShip, they Skyped, emailed and talked between California and Virginia.
Once chosen to be one of the 10 full productions for NYMF in March of 2019, they had to go to NYC for a mandatory boot camp where they were taught how to produce a show. Following that long weekend, the production work really started with hiring people, negotiating salaries, learning about artist’s unions, and details like fire-proofing props. They had to find a director, who then helped guide the process of designing a set, hiring a creative team, making costumes and perfecting the lighting and sound. It took five weeks of pre-production and 3 weeks of rehearsal to get the show together. After auditioning professional Equity actors, the show was finally cast in May 2019 and opened mid-July. All this while also raising the funds to pay the required NY State minimum wage.
Currently, Laura and Linda are meeting with producers who might be interested in bringing the show forward, such as to college and regional theaters. They even have in mind starting work on a version as a streaming series on TV and sending it to Laura’s contacts in Australia.
LadyShip is a musical homage to the unsung women colonists of 18th-century Australia whose abysmal treatment and sacrifices have been largely forgotten. LadyShip reminds us that whether in the 18th century or now, this story is all too familiar: when given no say in their lives or the world around them, women will always find their own voice and, as the final song says, “Find A Way” to survive.
For more information, visit www.ladyship.twigs.com.