“No, no, no, no. You can’t die! We worked so hard. Damn it!”
It is the end of Act 1 of “The White City: Burnham’s Dream,” a musical about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. And the words are spoken by a heart-broken Daniel Burnham, shattered --- and afraid --- following the sudden death of his longtime close friend and business partner John Wellborn Root.
The two men have been chosen as a team to lead the planning for the World’s Fair and have already begun their preparations when Root, at the age of 41, is struck down by pneumonia in January, 1891.
Now, Burnham will have to go on alone. The song he sings to conclude the act is titled “Must I Walk This Path.”
“The White City,” written by June Finfer and Elizabeth Doyle, will have its Chicago premiere this week as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of the city-shaping Plan of Chicago, also called the Burnham Plan.
Concert performances are being offered at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (donation), and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 11, at Carr Chapel at the Illinois Institute of Technology at 3201 S. State St. ($40-$50).
It’s a different Daniel Burnham who’s on view in the musical than has been the subject of the centennial celebration of his famous Plan.
Throughout this year, Burnham, the primary author of the Plan, has been portrayed as a sure-handed, solid-thinking leader of men, filled with confidence and energy and enthusiasm. Indeed, the story has been told and retold that he took up the arduous task of overseeing preparation of the Plan almost joyfully, even though he had just been told that he had just three years to live.
The Daniel Burnham in “The White City” isn’t this demi-god.
He’s a guy who’s not totally sure of himself and his place in the world. Even before Root’s death, Burnham is nervous about the tasks ahead of him, wondering if he is up to the challenge. When struck with doubts, he falls back on the thought that he’s sharing this massive undertaking with Root, the man he relies on and trusts most in his professional life.
An elegant presence
In contrast to Burnham, Root (right) is an elegant presence in the first act, calmly sure of himself and his artistic sense.
“The thing about Root is, he’s like [Ludwig Mies van der Rohe]. It’s as if he emerged fully formed from the brow of Zeus,” says Finfer who has made a career of writing and producing documentaries and plays on architectural themes.
“He was so brilliant that he needed someone like Burnham to focus him. That combination was brilliant. As one woman said, Root and Burnham were ‘like lightning playing around a great tree.’ ”
Maybe it’s the responsibility of having to focus Root as well as all the other workers involved in the project that has Burnham initially feeling doubts. Maybe it’s his personal history of early failures, particularly when he fell short in his attempt to enter Harvard and Yale.
Whatever the reason, the Burnham of this musical can’t help but be awed by the job of running the Fair.
“All we remember now is that this guy was so great and so powerful and such a visionary,” says Finfer. “But he was a human being with flaws and insecurities.”
No wonder, then, that Burnham was crushed --- momentarily, at least --- in the aftermath of Root’s death. His words in the musical are based on words that a relative reported Burnham said that day:
“I have worked, I have schemed and dreamed to make us the greatest architects in the world. I have made him see it and kept him at it --- and now he dies --- damn! damn! damn!”
A play about a Plan?
Initially, three years ago, Finfer decides to write something to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan --- but not about that document. “How do you write a play about a Plan? Give me a break,” she recalls thinking.
Instead, she chose the Fair as her subject since, as she says, “It was the Plan before the Plan.” But her first attempt, a drama, didn’t work. “It was sort of like a history lesson, too much detail,” she acknowledges. “I thought: This should be a musical. It would just sing.”
She and Doyle have written more than a dozen songs, using the musical forms of the 1890s --- a waltz, a tango, a ballad, even a barbershop quartet.
Root’s death provides a fine dramatic moment to conclude the first act. But to liven up a tale that --- to be honest, involved a lot of men sitting at big tables talking about details of money, landscape and transportation --- Finfer and Doyle have envisioned marital friction within the Burnham household and a young Harriet Monroe pining for Root, her brother-in-law.
Burnham’s wife Margaret, upset that so much of Burnham’s thought and attention are focused on his architectural business and then the World’s Fair, sings a song, titled, “Never Marry an Architect.”
Burnham, who spent his weeknights in a log cabin at the Fair construction site, wrote daily letters home to his wife --- but Margaret didn’t always reciprocate. “I think she withdrew from him emotionally,” says Finfer.
“Totally in love”
Monroe (left), who later founded Poetry Magazine, was active in city affairs in this period. Five years after Root’s death, she published a warm and awestruck biography of her brother-in-law.
“I’ve read her biography of him, and she was totally in love with the man,” said Finfer. She isn’t sure, she says, whether Root had similar feelings.
That reading of their relationship gives a dramatic piquancy to a duet that Root and Monroe sing together, “Love of My Dreams.” For Monroe, Root is the obvious object of longing. For Root, it’s not clear.
With such elements --- historical and imagined --- Finfer and Doyle are able to meet the conventions of a musical. That makes the performance fun.
Its picture of a nervous Burnham unsure of his abilities gives the drama an unusual edge. Of course, the man had self-doubt. He was human.
It’s interesting and enlightening to be reminded of this about the man who became the Daniel Burnham of legend.
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