A Kennedy Myth & Mystery, Through The Eyes of The Women In The Eye Of The Storm

“Boiler Room Girls.”
The nickname was not hard to come by. The windowless work area in the basement of Senator Robert Kennedy’s Washington, DC campaign offices did, indeed, double as the building’s boiler room. And the “girls” to whom it referred? Well, in 1968, it was equally inevitable, despite the fact that every one of them was in their twenties.

During Bobby’s ill-fated run for the presidency, these women coordinated one of the most important aspects of any campaign. They monitored and coordinated all communications from the six regions of the country into which the nation had been divided for purposes of the campaign process, and it was through them that the executive team and Kennedy himself perceived the mood of the voters during this critical chapter of American political history.

In 1968, the six Boiler Room Girls ranged in age from 23 to 28. Among them, the oldest, Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, died a year later in the infamous Chappaquiddick incident. The other five, Esther Newberg, Susan Tannenbaum, Rosemary “Cricket” Keough, and sisters Nance and Mary Ellen Lyons, all testified in the highly charged hearings on Chappaquiddick in the aftermath of Kopechne’s tragic death.

Despite their integral role in one of the most high-profile presidential campaigns in history, and the opinion of those who knew them that they were “frighteningly intelligent, politically astute, capable as all get-out,” (described in a McCall’s article by Vivian Cadden), this new musical is the first treatment of their story from the perspective of the women themselves. Why? 

The cast of Boiler Room Girls in rehearsal

“Come see the play to find out,” says Cheryl B. Engelhardt, the show’s lyricist, composer and musical director. The musical, according to its authors, seeks to do more than tell the story. It looks to provide some insight into the cultural, and cultic, factors which explain why the story has become essentially a footnote. Book writer, director and choreographer Kevin Archambault observes, “as a society we are fed history through our media outlets, and that becomes ‘the truth.’” Archambault thinks the result, and perhaps even the intentional desire of both media and the public, is that we can “believe that our political heroes are above human error.”

The repression of the contributions of women and minorities in every aspect of history is a well-known phenomenon against which many, especially in the arts, have pushed back in recent years. Neat classifications of the “white hats” and the “black hats” among our leaders can be appealing. We want to boo or cheer, so to speak. The result, when we determine someone is a villain, can be a wholesale destruction of their image in life, or their legacy in death. But, Archambault notes, our desire to have unblemished cultural icons has dangerous repercussions as well. Remembering our heroes as spotless can allow us a false sense that we’ve come farther than we really have in our treatment of women and minorities. Bluntly, Engelhardt and Archambault posit, in Archambault’s words, “we haven’t come far at all.”

There are added layers to the question of the Boiler Room Girls’ relative anonymity, however, which make this show intriguing. First, it must be noted that part of that low profile is the result of the nearly total silence of the surviving women since the tragic ending of the Bobby Kennedy campaign and the Chappaquiddick affair. Second, and possibly inexorably linked to this silence, is the question of the magnetism of the Kennedys both during their lifetimes and as an American cultural phenomenon. All of these women appear to have been fiercely pro-Kennedy when John and Bobby were alive, notable given the fact that they were certainly privy to their personal character flaws to an extent the general public was not, until decades later. And, even after Teddy’s reprehensible behavior at Chappaquiddick became relatively well-known, the women have not sought to betray the Kennedy mystique during the several decades that have elapsed since. Was this because they were afraid of potentially dangerous repercussions of breaking ranks? Or did they, like so many, simply consider the more idealistic aspects of the Kennedy platform to outweigh the benefits of such disclosures?

Archambault’s first inclination to write the play was borne of this very Kennedy mystique. Growing up in a Catholic household, JFK’s magic had a central focus in his home.  He confesses a “crazy obsession with the Kennedy curse” from his earliest consciousness of their story.  When the creative team first began to explore the possibility of a musical treatment of the subject, they thought the Chappaquiddick story itself would be the focal point of the piece. The more research they did, the more they were convinced that the Boiler Room Girls had to be the vehicle.

Kevin Archambault

“What happened, surrounding the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the death of one of their own, that would cause these women to form an unbreakable bond that has lasted their lifetimes?” Archambault asks. Archambault and Engelhardt set out to paint that picture.

The two met in 2013 when Engelhardt appeared in a musical Archambault was directing at the Rhinebeck Center for Performing Arts. In ensuing collaborations, Engelhardt has served as musical director in Archambault-directed pieces, and out of the friendship, they developed a mutual interest in an original project. By 2014, they had committed to the Boiler Room Girls’ story. Progress was slow at first, as both delved deep into the innumerable wormholes down which the Kennedy story can often lead. About eighteen months ago, Engelhardt encouraged accelerating the process by setting dates for its live premiere. “Yep,” she quips. “I realized that I work best under a deadline, and at some point we had to give ourselves a date to work toward.” That’s when the script and the music being presented to audiences in this month’s production really started to take shape.

Both come to endeavor with significant pedigree to recommend the quality of the work. Archambault is a director and choreographer out of NYC. He spent years on the road as an actor, dancer and singer, and now calls the Hudson Valley his permanent home. His list of directorial credits is vast, and when he appears as an actor, he is widely regarded as one of the region’s finest. He also serves as the Assistant Artistic & Managing Director at The CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck and is an adjunct professor at SUNY Dutchess. 

Engelhardt is a prolific composer and singer/songwriter with dozens of film and ad score credits, 4 piano-pop albums, 20 tours, and 40+ TV placements on her resume. She began her career in a hip-hop recording studio in NYC and went on to work at a post-production house, which led her to her stint as a jingle composer before starting to tour with her band. Also a Hudson Valley resident, Engelhardt says the music is largely pop-inspired, “…we did not want to be bound to trying to write a 60’s soundtrack,” she says. The story, Archambault and Engelhardt agree, is important in its own right, and there is no need to date its music stylistically. While the production will emulate the style of the times in its costuming and set design, the piece is not an homage to the top forty hits of the era.

Cheryl B. Engelhardt

The duo is very excited about the cast they’ve assembled to present the material in its debut. Cast members Chris Backofen, Joseph Bongiorno, Tom Bunker, Bryelle Burgus, Mark Colvson, Michelle George, Victoria Howland, Rachel Karashay, PJ Kraus, Natasha Lende, Kiah Saxe, Wendell Scherer, Cheyenne See, Jordan Stroly & Elaine Young, are all experienced stage performers, and all were eager to be a part of telling the story.

The hope and expectation for the piece is that this premiere will lead to insights about the strengths of the project which will allow for even more tightening of the product for presentation in other theater workshops, festivals and venues regionally and nationally. And both of its creators are clear in the ultimate hope for the project. “The goal,” they say, “is Broadway.”

Having spent time with the creative team and gained some familiarity with the script, the music, and the underlying story, there is no reason to believe the work will not have a long and fruitful future. The compelling nature of the Kennedy myth, combined with the little-told story, distinguishes it from the Kennedy “white-noise” – there should be an appetite for the story given its newness, and both Archambault and Engelhardt have the experience and the talent to stage the story with audience appeal. The opportunity to see the show in its premiere production is a unique chance, therefore, to observe the organic development of such a project and indeed, to be a part of how it evolves. If the piece gets the legs it will no doubt deserve, its Rhinebeck audience may have the chance to look back on this intimate opening after they see it again under the bright lights in its future.

The show runs one weekend only, September 20th– 22nd. Tickets are available online and at the door, but online purchase is encouraged, as the buzz for this project may make box office purchase a risky venture. The project also has its own web and social media presences, as does Engelhardt’s musical library. All links are provided below.

Tickets: http://www.centerforperformingarts.org/all-shows-sp-1131460608/item/boiler-room-girls

Boiler Room Girls Website: https://www.boilerroomgirls.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/631512180714447/

Instagram: https://instagram.com/boilerroomgirls?igshid=1wdhkxxz9qa6c

Cheryl B. Engelhardt’s Musical Library: www.CBEmusic.com

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