How the journey of Tori Murden McClure inspired ROW the album and musical
By Josh Miller
“Her plan was to row it [her boat, the American Pearl] alone across the Atlantic Ocean. No motor, no sail. Something no woman and no American had ever done before. Over 3,600 miles across the open North Atlantic Ocean, her real passion was exploring. This was not her first expedition.” From the TED stage in 2015, singer-songwriter Dawn Landes told the story of Tori Murden McClure’s voyage in 1998 that ended before she reached her destination because of storms during hurricane season. After her first attempt, Muhammad Ali told her that she did not want to be known as the woman who almost rowed across the Atlantic. In 1999, she made her second voyage, and on December 3, 1999, Tori arrived in Guadeloupe after spending eighty-one days traveling from Canary Island.
Joining me via Zoom, Dawn and Tori talked about Tori’s journey, Dawn’s music and how they are navigating the choppy waters of COVID-19. We talked about “ROW,” a musical by Dawn Landes and Daniel Goldstein, directed by Tyne Rafaeli. “It was commissioned in 2015 by New York Voices in collaboration with The Public Theater/Joe’s Pub and showcases a cast of ten characters, a small orchestra and eighteen songs,” Dawn explained. The world premiere was scheduled for summer 2020 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival but was postponed due to the pandemic.
The album “ROW,” planned for release by Dawn in tandem with the premiere of the musical, was released on October 2, 2020, and features songs that follow Tori’s journey. The album weaves in literary references at every turn, from Moby Dick to Hamlet and Odysseus to King Lear. As Dawn and Tori discussed the literary lines within the lyrics, Dawn shared, “We’ve been working on this project for over seven years. I’ve never been so absorbed by a book [Tori’s autobiography, ’A Pearl in the Storm’] or dissected anything so many times. There are so many literary references in the book itself. Books are important to her and they are important to me.”
I asked Tori, how many books did you take on your voyage? Before embarking on her journey, she said that she asked if carrying a 40-pound life raft with her was worth its weight given the weight and size of the American Pearl. She was told it was dead weight, so she took it out of the boat. Tori said, “I thought, ‘Now I can take at least 20 pounds of books.’” She laughed, noting that she wasn’t sure how many pounds of books she actually snuck aboard the boat, but that she made sure not to mention them to anyone before departing.
You can see in the video clips that Tori created to document her journey, which are also played throughout Dawn’s TED talk, that mental fortitude is something she possesses. I asked her about it and how it relates to what we are experiencing as a nation right now. Tori replied, “Folks are describing it as stress, but I think of it as comfort with uncertainty. I test really high in comfort with uncertainty,” Tori said, noting that the following day she would be talking to the faculty of a university business school about the stress of the current environment. “The ability to hold onto hope in the face of uncertainty is probably what many people are struggling with. There is a lot of hope. While we are struggling with big issues, the fact that we are wrestling with it should provide as much hope as anything going on.”
Dawn isn’t the only person whose life has been impacted by Tori’s story. Rachel Platt, formerly with WHAS 11 News, now with the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, KY, shared, “I followed her journey for years, interviewed her before and then traveled to Guadeloupe with WHAS when she made history!” Platt continued, “There are always a few people and stories that stay with you for life in journalism, and hers is definitely one of them. Not just because she’s a badass, but because of what she taught us in both her accomplishments and those so-called ‘failed’ attempts. It’s actually in those moments where we learn the most about ourselves, and Tori shared it all with us. And as a woman, you bet I was proud. What a shining example for all of us! My full circle moment? The Frazier is going to display the Pearl as part of our Cool KY exhibit, which means I get to hang with the boat and Tori moving forward. Now that is cool!”
The mother of a three-year-old, Dawn describes Zoom dance parties with friends, the deadline for writing songs and doing online concerts as things that have helped her throughout COVID-19. She said that her daughter runs around singing lines from “ROW” while eating her cereal. This includes lines from “Oh Amelia,” a song which came into being after Dawn and Daniel learned that Tori carried a quote about Amelia Earhart from Walter Lippman’s eulogy for her in her wallet. The song says, “They are the things that are undertaken not for measurable results, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor and the compulsion to make or to understand. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.”
When I asked about the impact this immersive process has had on Dawn, she quotes one of the songs on the album, “The Theology of Adventure.” “‘It’s so much sweeter on the summit as a shared experience,’ I feel like that about this project,” Dawn said. “We haven’t gotten to the summit yet, but I think it’ll be incredible.”
What’s the next step on their journey towards the summit? With the cancelation of the world premiere of the musical came a new opportunity reported by The New York Times for an audio-only theatrical recording of “ROW” to be produced with the full cast and a release set for the fall through Audible. We hope you’ll tune in to help them reach their summit!
To learn more about Dawn Landes and the album “ROW,” visit dawnlandes.com.