Singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez B.M. ’00 wasn’t sure she even liked musicals when a producer called in 2017 asking her to write songs for one. But when she heard what the show was about, “I couldn’t say no,” she says.
¡Americano! tells the true story of Antonio Valdovinos, a Mexican-American man who went down to the Marines office to enlist only to learn that he was undocumented. It premiered over the winter in Phoenix, his hometown. Rodriguez, who was raised in both Mexican-American and Anglo cultures in Texas, says she was drawn to the project because it offered “the opportunity to tell a human story about a ‘Dreamer’ that every American could both relate to and empathize with—regardless of political leanings or affiliations.”
Though it may have seemed like an unusual professional move for Rodriguez, in some ways, writing for ¡Americano! was a natural next step in her career. After growing up in Austin, she studied classical violin at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, later transferring to Berklee to pursue improvisational violin performance. “I had no idea I would end up writing songs or singing,” she says. But “Wild Thing” songwriter Chip Taylor hired Rodriguez to fiddle just after graduation, and within weeks she was singing and recording a duet album with him.
The unexpected project earned them a feature in the New York Times. She recorded four acclaimed duet albums with him, then released her first solo album in 2006. In all, she’s made a dozen albums, including her most recent release, the bilingual Lola, which blends the music of her Mexican heritage with the bluegrass-country-folk music she was known for. Critics raved, with NPR Music calling the “seemingly improbable cultural mashups...a perfect expression of reality for many folks in Texas and beyond.”
Rodriguez knew that shifting from her solo career to ¡Americano! “was going to be incredibly challenging. And it was,” she says. She used to write songs when she felt inspired. But for the show, she had a set list of topics. “There were definitely moments where I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t write a song about a school board meeting from five different points of view and make it sound fun,’” she says. “I just had to get over myself and say, ‘I’m digging in.’” That mindset also helps her stay creative as the parent of a young child. “Conditions don’t have to be perfect for you to write a song,” she says.
Rodriguez credits Berklee with training her to be practical and flexible. “You have to be incredibly diverse to stay in music for a lifetime,” she says. “You’ve got to be ready to take that gig playing fiddle backing somebody up and be ready to sing if you need to sing, be ready to be a recording artist, be ready to write songs for a musical.”
¡Americano! made a huge splash in Phoenix. Its run culminated in 10 sold-out performances and broke Arizona box office records for an original musical. The city’s mayor declared February 23, 2020, ¡Americano! The Musical Day. The show’s team plans to hold a staged reading in New York City in June and to look at theaters that can house the show there.
But no matter what happens, ¡Americano! has already more than fulfilled Rodriguez’s hopes for the show. She measures its success by the reactions from Republicans and Democrats who told her the show deepened their perspectives.
“Finding a way to start the discussion via a musical was amazing to me,” she says. “Adding fun, hip-shaking music and dances, telling this story from a very humanistic viewpoint about our protagonist’s life, helped overcome this barrier of talking about these hot-button issues. I watched audiences coming out of the theater having civil conversations and I thought, ‘Wow, this was worth all the effort.’”
This article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of our alumni magazine, Berklee Today.