The history of immigrants and Ellis Island fuels PBS concert special

PBS program combines orchestral music and dramatic readings

“Great Performances: Ellis Island: The Dream of America With Pacific Symphony” airs Friday, June 29, on PBS.

New York’s Ellis Island has inspired countless newcomers to America, and it also has motivated those in the creative arts.

Composer Peter Boyer’s piece “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” combines contemporary classical music and dramatic readings. To commemorate Immigrant Heritage Month, PBS’ “Great Performances” presents a staging of it Friday, June 29 (check local listings), with the Carl St. Clair-conducted Pacific Symphony joined by a cast including Tony Award winner Barry Bostwick (“Spin City”), Emmy recipient Camryn Manheim (“The Practice”) and Michael Nouri (“Flashdance”).

The production was recorded last year at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, Calif., but Bostwick also did a Grammy-nominated 2005 audio recording of it.

“I’ve done it a number of different times with different orchestras,” he says. “I do it as often as I can, because I love the words … and how could you not love standing in front of a huge orchestra that’s playing this gorgeous music? It’s a whole different world for an actor to be involved in something so meaningful, not only from an entertainment standpoint, but in what it has to say.”

Explaining that Boyer based the text on an oral history of Ellis Island, Bostwick speaks the words of Irish immigrant Manny Steen. “It’s hard,” the actor admits of doing the dialect, “because you don’t want to overdo it. At one point, I had them put all the words on cue cards phonetically, so I could get a sense of the rhythm and tonal changes. Then, I got up on stage to do it, and I couldn’t read them! So I just had to rely on my memory of what this guy sounded like.”

Seen most recently in CBS’ “Living Biblically,” Manheim says she appreciates being part of the “Great Performances” program because “it’s so important that we remember what our ideals are as a nation. I want people to go back and read that poem on the Statue of Liberty that says, ‘A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.’ I think of that, that we are here to bring people in … and that goes for Syria, for Mexico, for all people who need help.”

Manheim notes her role in “Ellis Island: The Dream of America” is that of Katherine Beychock, “a Russian immigrant who came through Ellis Island in 1910 at age 10. It was a harrowing journey for her to come to America, but her whole world changes the moment she gets to the harbor and sees the Statue of Liberty. It’s just that dream of immigrants coming to America, and it was an honor and a privilege to speak her words.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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