The people of Minneapolis always seem concerned that youngsters without enough to do will get into trouble.
It's a theme History Theatre Artistic Director Ron Peluso recognized immediately when composer Hiram Titus arrived on his doorstep with an old black and white photograph in a broken frame. It was a picture of the Working Boys Band, a group formed in Minneapolis a century earlier. They often performed at civic events, playing patriotic songs and hoping music could keep kids out of trouble.
Titus "walked up to me and said, 'You know this would make a great musical, we ought to do it,'" Peluso recalled.
"The Working Boys Band" makes its premier this weekend on St. Paul's History Theatre stage. It's a story that looks back at the Twin Cities and family life 100 years ago when there were no child labor laws and many youngsters scrambled to make a living, playwright Dominic Orlando said.
Orlando researched the band, and found it often reflected the changing nature of Minnesota. He set the play during the World War I era at a time when authorities worried about large number of immigrants here.
The band's organizers came from the German community, taught musical discipline and moral integrity, he said. It became a tool to keep immigrant kids occupied and out of trouble.
"Manliness, integrity, intelligence and kindness -- these four are the remedy to bigotry and blindness," a cast member sings during the performance.
Peluso, who is directing the production, remembers talking with one former band member of the original Working Boys.
"He's 93. And when I first called him he answered like 'Hello, it's Dr. Seigel,'" said Peluso, imitating a frail elderly voice. "He talked my ear off for about an hour. He didn't want to talk about being a doctor or a World War II vet. He just wanted to talk about the Working Boys Band experience and how it changed his life."
Siegel told him about how he and his brother were poor kids growing up in South Minneapolis.
"Somebody gave him a clarinet," said Peluso. "And it became a self esteem thing, I think.
"The Working Boys Band" is perfect for the History Theatre because it tells personal stories of ordinary people with themes everyone can recognize, Peluso said. He agrees with Orlando when he says it's a story about families, and the way humans form them to meet their needs.
One family member will be missing at the performances, however.
Hirum Titus, who started it all with that old black and white photo, died just days after completing the music for the play. Titus had a successful career as a composer for the Guthrie, the Minnesota Opera, and the History Theatre.
"We miss him," Peluso said. "The first couple of weeks of rehearsal were bittersweet because we knew he was in the room with us, but in a way he would never be able to see this wonderful piece that he has written with Dominic."
"The Working Boys Band" will play at the History Theatre in St. Paul through the beginning of June.