East 4th Street is a well-trod path in the New York City art world. On the way to Broadway, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, or even the Hall of Fame, most artists at some point walk down East 4th Street, right here between Second and Bowery. It’s not so common knowledge that Ellen Stewart was the first one to clear the trail for them. As the founder of La MaMa E.T.C. (dedicated to the playwright and all aspects of the theater), Ellen Stewart has paved the way for untold numbers of theater artists at the beginning of their career, and maintained the roads back home for even more. La MaMa Cantata is a celebration of her life – a joyous and fond remembrance of her triumphs, struggles and personality, infused with the love of the artists she nurtured and elevated by superb music, theatricality and exquisite voices.
Who better to tell her stories than the woman herself? All of La MaMa Cantata’s book is culled from interviews with Ellen Stewart and the artists she touched, bringing life to her journey to New York through Chicago, her time as a fashion designer at Saks Fifth Avenue, and the establishment of La MaMa itself, jumping from venue to venue in the East Village before finally settling on 74 East 4th Street. Liz Swados has written a sweeping and varied score to honor the woman who was a profound mentor in her own life. The influence of the personal is essential and lovely, but the historicism of the text keeps it grounded. Being a larger-than-life personality, Ellen Stewart is portrayed alternately by several incredibly talented performers who bring unique touches to her character without ever dividing or competing to be her presence in the space.
After a successful trip abroad, the homecoming performance of Cantata was packed with people who clearly wanted to feel that, to get just a sense of her presence in the room. Some were established artists who worked with Ellen Stewart in the past, while others were young performers just starting an amazing career, never knowing her in life. All of these people walked away touched by the remarkable life of Ellen Stewart, who laid the foundation for the arts community they’re engrossed in. As East 4th Street (Ellen Stewart Way) continues to grow, to bring in new entertainers and jettison others into the world stage, La MaMa Cantata helps us to remember that her influence and passion still guide us well today.
- Written by Shane Reader