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‘Burnham’s Dream: The White City’ puts a musical spin on Chicago story

Laura Degrenia as Margaret Burnham (from left), Pavi Proczko as Daniel Burnham and Sam Massey as John Root in Lost and Found Productions’ world-premiere musical "Burnham's Dream: The White City." | Andy Lynn

Playwright and documentary filmmaker June Finfer has written and produced numerous films and plays about architecture. So it’s no surprise she had an interest in Daniel Burnham’s The Plan of Chicago, which laid out plans for the future of the city.

“I thought it would be interesting to do a play about Burnham,” Finfer says, adding, with a laugh, “But how do you do a play about a plan?”

‘Burnham’s Dream: The White City’

When: June 2-July 1

Where: Lost and Found Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $42

Info: theaterwit.org

She found her way in when she read that Burnham’s inspiration for the plan came from his work in planning the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the world’s fair known as the White City. Finfer began by digging into the Burnham archive at the Art Institute of Chicago. She found a wealth of information there on Burnham and his ambitious plan to create his visionary design for the White City.

What began as a monologue and evolved into short plays about the characters involved — Burnham, architects John Root and Louis Sullivan, philanthropist Bertha Palmer, journalist Ida B. Wells — has now morphed into the musical “Burnham’s Dream: The White City.”

June Finfer | Austin D. Oie Photo
June Finfer | Austin D. Oie Photo

“This is no bio-musical,” Finfer says. “This is a story of building something that’s never been built before — how it happened and how it almost didn’t happen.”

“Burnham’s Dream” is being staged by Finfer’s Lost and Found Productions, with Erik Wagner directing the 10-member cast that features Pavi Proczko as Burnham, Daniel Leahy as Sullivan, Sam Massey as Root, Genevieve Thiers as Palmer, Arielle Leverett as Wells and Laura Degrenia as Margaret Burnham.

Composer Elizabeth Doyle wrote the music, joining book writer and lyricist Finfer on the project. Doyle researched the styles of music popular in the early 1890s. The fair itself included performances by John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin and the Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski. The musical’s score features ragtime, barbershop quartet, art songs, sonnets and marches.

“It was really a wonderful time for music,” says Doyle. “I wanted to create music from that era but in my voice.”

Finfer drew a bit of inspiration from an experience from her own past. In the mid-1960s, her late husband Paul, an architect and urban planner, had the opportunity to plan the town of Valdez, Alaska, after it was deemed unsafe after an earthquake.

“The entire town had to be moved to a new location,” Finfer says. “I know from my husband’s experience that it takes a great deal of imagination, vision and persistence, plus cooperation from all sorts of people, to make it happen.”

Finfer says that Burnham lived on site while the White City was under construction, a situation that must have been hard on his wife and one that Finfer could understand.

“Having been married to an architect who was away in Alaska for six months, I could emphasize with her,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “So I wrote a song called ‘Never Marry an Architect.’ ”

In another song, “We Are a Team,” Burnham’s partner John Root describes their relationship: “He is the engine and I am the steam, he is pragmatic and I tend to dream.”

Elizabeth Doyle | Scott Montgomery Photo
Elizabeth Doyle | Scott Montgomery Photo

When Root dies suddenly while working on preliminary plans for the White City, big questions remain: Can Burnham go on alone? And will he be allowed to? All of this makes for good drama, says Finfer.

What amazes Finfer about Burnham — who was never formally trained as an architect — is how he continued to grow with everything he undertook.

“Burnham was ambitious, driven and charming, and he made things happen,” Finfer says. “People had confidence in him, and he made his vision a reality.”

Doyle hopes the musical gives audiences a new appreciation for Burnham and the White City.

“I often say that, if I had a time machine, I’d go back to the White City for a day,” she says. “So we hope audiences, for a couple of hours, can do just that by entering this world we’ve created, a world filled with positive and challenging issues.”

MORE CHICAGO HISTORY: Underscore Theatre soon debuts its new musical “Haymarket,” created by Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld. It’s the story of labor unrest in 1886 Chicago, where striking workers clashed with police, resulting in an act of terror, a corrupt trial and the death of five innocent men. Nick Thornton directs a cast of actor-musicians performing a folk-infused score. Performances are June 13-July 22. For more information, go to underscoretheatre.org.

Mary Houlihan is a freelance writer.