Argentine writer Patricia Suárez-Cohen likes to listen to the Beatles while she’s working. The music doubtless provided welcome jolts of energy when she was writing her first musical, “Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires,” which is having its world premiere at Gala Hispanic Theatre in June.
Created with composer/lyricist Mariano Vales, “Las Polacas” is a bilingual work that deals with a sobering episode in history: the international sex-trafficking operation run by the Zwi Migdal organization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Principally based in Argentina, Zwi Migdal profited from schemes that included luring poor Eastern European Jewish women to South America with offers of jobs or marriage, only to force them into prostitution.
In “Las Polacas,” set during and after World War I, a would-be singer named Rachela voyages from her native Poland to Buenos Aires as the bride (or so she thinks) of a Jewish businessman. When she learns the truth, she must rely on her inner resources — and on the courage of a rash but idealistic friend named Micah — as she strives for equanimity and freedom.
Because of the bleakness of the broader story, Suárez-Cohen said, it was challenging to make Rachela a sufficiently upbeat character. The musical’s heroine “lived horrible situations in her life,” the playwright said by e-mail from Buenos Aires. “But we need[ed] a strong person, a person with faith in herself.” So she and Vales strove to make Rachela someone who would treasure her dreams and “fight for a free life.”
“Las Polacas” is not Suárez-Cohen’s first stab at writing about the trafficking of women to Argentina in the early 20th century. Inspired by the history of her birthplace — the Argentine port town of Rosario, which was “a gangster city until 1930,” she said — Suárez-Cohen wrote a quartet of plays on the subject between 1999 and 2001.
A few years ago, Gala’s producing artistic director, Hugo Medrano, was in Buenos Aires and came across the plays. Fascinated by the topic and treatment, he contacted Suárez-Cohen to see whether she would be interested in developing a musical. Intrigued, Suárez-Cohen accepted.
As the project progressed, Vales, Gala’s composer-in-residence, signed on to handle the score and lyrics. Born and raised in Argentina and now a Washington-area resident, Vales had worked on “Momia en el closet (Mummy in the Closet): The Return of Eva Perón,” a Gala-commissioned musical the company produced in 2009. He knew Suárez-Cohen’s writing and particularly admired the quartet of scripts about the trafficking ring.
“These four plays deal with a very dark subject, but in such a beautiful way,” Vales said. He added that he thought it would be tricky to create a musical with an equally somber storyline but figured that a poetic approach, like that of the plays, might do the trick.
He and Suárez-Cohen collaborated by e-mail and WhatsApp, with Vales making a few trips to Buenos Aires and the playwright coming to Washington for a workshop a few months ago.
As Vales worked on the music, he sought to evoke Poland and Buenos Aires of the 1910s and ’20s. The “Las Polacas” score, he said, includes tunes with Slavic and Jewish folk influences as well as early-style tangos, “plus a little bit of cabaret in the Brecht/Weill vein.”
“The music is very beautiful,” says director Mariano Caligaris, who also staged “Momia en el closet,” which helps to alleviate the somberness of the material. “Music,” he said, “has the possibility to touch very sensitive and harsh subjects without going into a very depressive thing.”
The cast includes Samantha Dockser as Rachela and Joshua Morgan as Rachela’s anarchist friend, Micah, as well as prominent Argentine musical theater actors Martín Ruiz and Ana Fontán.
“Las Polacas” arguably has a streak of timeliness, debuting at a time of frequent news of émigrés and refugees in desperate straits.
“This is a story about people moving from one place to another and trying to look for a better life and finding more struggle than anything else in that move,” Vales said.
At the same time, the composer sees a timeless, universal quality in the story of Rachela’s hopes, setbacks and resilience. “To me, it is something everyone can associate with,” he said.
Suárez-Cohen also sees broad appeal in the tale: “Rachela is a girl like every girl in the world.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires Through June 28 at Gala Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Tickets: $20-$42. 202-234-7174. www.galatheatre.org. In Spanish and English with surtitles.