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A musical history lesson

New Laguna Playhouse production revives a chapter in American history when orphans were sent to populate the plains states.

October 27, 2011|By Cindy Frazier
  • Molly Cohen (Elsa), Rudy Biettlar (Karl), Siena Yusi (Anna), Jennifer Trevour (Miss Hill) and Tayler Lynch (Helen), left to right, rehearse a scene from “Looking for Home: A Story from the Orphan Trains” for the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre production.
Molly Cohen (Elsa), Rudy Biettlar (Karl), Siena Yusi… (DON LEACH, Coastline…)

Award-winning playwright Mary Murfitt has written stories and songs about cowgirls, small-town folks and other fictional characters. But her new musical, "Looking for Home: A Story from the Orphan Trains," is based on a little-known aspect of American history — and a real woman.

With emotional, stirring songs and historic period staging, the play recreates small-town America in the 1920s. Youth Theatre Director Donna Inglima directs the play, which will make its premiere at the Laguna Playhouse on the weekends of Nov. 4-6 and Nov. 11-13. Murfitt wrote the book, lyrics and music for the show.

In 2002, Murfitt — herself adopted and raised in a small Kansas town — met 90-year-old Anna Fuchs, who had come to the same town in the 1920s on an "orphan train." Fuchs was part of a supervised mass migration of abandoned or orphaned children from New York City and other gritty East Coast towns to the Great Plains.

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Orphan trains began in the 1850s, organized by the Children's Aid Society, and kept on bringing youngsters to help settle the West until the Great Depression ended the practice, according to Murfitt. More than 200,000 children were believed to be relocated under the orphan train program during those years.

Settlers in the West needed as much help as they could get, and the orphans needed homes.

"The orphan trains lasted for 75 years, but with the Depression, there was no longer extra food or extra places at the table," Murfitt said. "People couldn't afford to adopt them."

Few remember the trains, or the trials, tribulations and victories of the young people who were forced to leave the cities where they lived on the streets or in orphanages, who were placed on trains, with few belongings, with the intention of joining families on the prairies who needed an extra hand or wanted a child.

Murfitt's original musical play, "Orphan Train," written for adults, has been revamped for the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre. The play centers on the character of Anna Hoffman, a strong-willed 11-year-old orphan who is put on a train with her brother and sister in hopes that they will be adopted by a "good Christian family" out west and saved from the mean streets of New York City.

The musical features a cast of about 40, including adults and children as young as 6. In it, Anna looks back on her life with some regrets but mostly gratitude.

"She lived an ordinary, extraordinary life," Murfitt said.

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