Jonathan Rosenberg has always been involved in the music industry in one form or another. He has worked as a disc jockey, lead singer in a band and has written and composed music, but it always took a back seat “because he had to earn a living,” which he did as a special education teacher and administrator.
He had been doing some work as a playwright when he was struck with the idea behind his current work “¡Americano!” playing at the Phoenix Theatre through Feb. 23.
Jonathan was waiting to pick up his daughter from high school and was listening to NPR on the car radio. It was the fall of 2016, and Antonio “Tony” Valdovinos was part of a round-table discussion about undocumented immigrants.
“I was really impressed with his story, so I looked him up on the internet,” remembers Jonathan. “I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is a story that needs to be told,’ about a guy who keeps getting beat down and keeps getting back up on his feet.”
Jonathan had made some prior connections in Phoenix, and through them, he was able to get Tony’s contact information. He told Tony that he would like to make his story into a musical. “I don’t think he had ever seen a musical in his entire life,” says Jonathan.
Tony agreed, so Jonathan contacted Michael Barnard, the artistic director at the Phoenix Theatre Company and prominent public relations executive Jason Rose, and set up a meeting. “That’s how this whole thing got started,” says Jonathan.
“For me it’s like a second act,” he says. “I’ve spent 40 years of my life as an educator, but I’ve always been playing around with music. It’s always been my love.” Jonathan just retired from teaching in June 2019.
“Last year at this time I was working with students, and now I’m sitting in a rehearsal studio watching the play that I co-wrote with Michael Barnard being performed, and I’m going. ‘This is unbelievable!’ ” says Jonathan.
“¡Americano!” tells Tony’s story that is similar to many other “Dreamers” – undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children. The galvanizing moment in Tony’s life occurred when he was 12 years old and saw the towers come down on 9-11. He decided then that was going to enlist in the Marines, and when he was old enough, he tried, only to be rejected because he was not a U.S. citizen.
“This is not a political show at all, we’re not advocating anything in the show, we are telling this person’s story to the best of our ability,” says Jonathan. “We are telling his story so that people can decide what they want to do. My grandparents came from Ellis Island; my wife’s grandparents came from Ellis Island – we’re all immigrants.”
He continues, “It’s a story that I think that no matter what your political bent, you’ll leave the theater moved.”
The production features a cast of 24 and a live orchestra, Okesta Mendoza, which is led by musical arranger Sergio Mendoza, who also plays with the Tucson-based band Calexico. The composer for the show is Carrie Rodriguez from Austin, TX.
“I’ve seen a fair number of musicals in my life, and I’ve never heard music like this before,” says Jonathan. “It’s gonna blow people’s minds.”
After the show’s run in Phoenix, the plan is to bring it to New York for a reading to gauge interest.
“I am in love with this play, and if it’s as good as I think it is, there’s a chance that we could be in New York next year at this time, which is pretty amazing,” says Jonathan.
Jonathan is quick to say that none of this would have been possible with the help of his wife, Ilene Kruger. It was her relative that made the initial connection so that he could meet Jason Rose.
“She believes in me. I’ve never had anyone in my life believe in me the way she does, and it’s made all the difference,” he says.
He continues, “It took a good Jewish woman to kick me in the ass and to believe in me enough to make this all happen. I will always give all the credit to my wife.”
When: Through Feb. 23; Tues.-Sat. at 7:30 pm, Sat.-Sun. 2 pm
Where: Phoenix Theatre, 1825 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Tickets information: phoenixtheatre.com