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Tori Murden McClure's Row Across the Atlantic Made Into a Musical

McClure is well-known in Louisville for big and courageous feats.
She's the first woman and the first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, which she accomplished in 1999. McClure, who spent part of her childhood in Louisville, rowed nearly 3,000 miles by herself in a 23-foot long boat; she's also skied across the South Pole.

But what makes McClure nervous these days is the prospect of sitting in the audience—at a musical.

McClure documented her voyage  in her memoir, "A Pearl in the Storm." Now, her story can be seen on stage in New York City, in a musical adaptation written by a Louisville native. 

“I had some friends say, why does this make you nervous?" McClure, now the president of Louisville's Spalding University.  "And I said, well, there’s this part where this woman named Tori dances across the stage and bursts into song. Other than that, it’s perfectly fine.”

A self-described introvert, McClure wasn’t sure if she would attend this weekend’s performance of “Row” at the Public Theatre in New York. When singer-songwriter Dawn Landes and playwright Daniel Goldstein visited Louisville two years ago to ask for the rights to her story, she gladly agreed.

“You know, there’s a huge part of my psyche that was saying, it’s OK, the odds of a musical making it are really slim. It’ll be fine. My introvert side is entirely safe. But I underestimated Dawn Landes and Daniel Goldstein’s ability to make it actually happen,” McClure said.

This weekend's performance isn't a fully staged production—this is more of a concert, at a small music venue that’s part of the Public Theatre, which has become an important incubator for new musicals. The process started several years ago when Landes, a Louisville native, was given McClure’s book by a friend. But she didn’t consider making it into a musical until she started talking with Goldstein about a possible collaboration. He thought the story’s inherent drama would play well onstage, although there would be some difficulties in staging a story about one woman alone in a rowboat.

“Things that are relatively impossible to stage thrill me, because then the challenge becomes, what are the rules, how do you create it?” Goldstein said.

Goldstein and Landes worked together to shape the story, using flashbacks to bring in McClure’s personal history along with the journey across the ocean. For this weekend’s performances, Landes sings the role of Tori and narrates the show, and a small cast of actors performs the spoken parts.

As a singer-songwriter who usually writes more personal material, Landes had to get out of her usual mode of working.

“It’s been fun to work on something so collaborative. I’ve never worked with actors before,” Landes said.

Landes said McClure has been very cooperative in the process, but never tried to direct them or control the finished product.

“I think her involvement has been perfect for us to just take her story and go with it," Landes said. "She gave us her blessing, which was huge, and kind of let us go and do it.”

Landes remembers reading in the newspaper that McClure trained on the Ohio River, and she wanted to include her hometown in the show.

“I lived in Louisville last summer, to work on this specifically and be in Louisville, cause a lot of it is set in Louisville. I hadn’t lived there since high school. I went rowing with her and spent a little bit of time with her, and that was lovely,” said Landes.

McClure said she hopes the musical is inspiring on a broader level.

“It’s not my story so much that needs to be told, but there are elements of universality in 'A Pearl in the Storm' and that to the extent that those ring true with others, those are the elements that the play should be about,” McClure said.

McClure will be in the audience for this weekend’s concert, although she and the musical’s creators hope that it won’t be the last time it’s performed. Goldstein will be making revisions for a possible full production.

“The show has been really inspirational to a lot of people and the response has actually been kind of amazing, so I feel really positive that it will have a future life,” Goldstein said.

Landes and Goldstein both say they'd love for "Row" to eventually be performed in Louisville.