Locals produce musical remembering St. Francis Dam disaster

Producers Jerry Danielsen, left, and Braddon Mendelson work on their musical, "The Water Way" in their Canyon Country studio on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

As local residents commemorate the 92nd anniversary of the St. Francis Dam disaster, two Santa Clarita residents are finding their own way to remember the historical moment with their musical, “The Water Way.”

The musical, written by Braddon Mendelson and composed by Jerry Danielsen, follows the story of the transformation of Los Angeles with the deliverance of water, illustrating the collapse of the dam and its impact on the Santa Clarita Valley and surrounding areas.

When Mendelson moved to the SCV in 1999 and learned about the disaster, he said he was immediately fascinated and wanted to create a documentary.

“It never materialized, but I got all this stuff together,” he said, adding that he had already gathered quite a bit of research. “It just hit me … I said, ‘You know what? I’m more interested in seeing this than putting together a documentary.’”

So, years later, when Mendelson wanted to get into musical theater, he thought there would be no better way to make the story of the dam come to life.

Writer/Producer Braddon Mendelson of “The Water Way” describes the faulty materials used in construction as he displays a piece of the St. Francis Dam in Canyon Country on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

Similarly, Danielsen remembers learning about the dam when he moved to the SCV in junior high.

“People were talking about it like it was folklore of this area, (saying), ‘Way back in the day this dam burst,’” he said. “We drove up there when we got driver’s licenses and checked it out.”

Now, the pair are working together to produce the musical, which Mendelson said will be more than just the story of the disaster. “I really think this is a really good story for a musical, but I don’t just want to make it about the dam. I want to make it about the rise of Los Angeles because of the delivery of water from the north.”

The story begins in 1877 and follows William Mulholland as he arrives in L.A. when it was a city of only 9,000 residents.

Working as a ditch tender hired by Frederick Eaton, Mulholland begins clearing debris from the Zanja Madre, the original aqueduct that brought water to L.A. from the L.A. River and the title of one of 20 or so songs in the musical.

Producers of “The Water Way”, Jerry Danielsen, left, and Braddon Mendelson sing their original song “The Zanja Madre” as they work on their musical, “The Water Way” in their Canyon Country studio on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

“We follow that trajectory, but along the way, there’s a drought,” Mendelson said. “The water would come and go. It was dirty and the population was growing.”

The story progresses as Mulholland’s career does, eventually leading to Eaton and Mulholland’s plan to fight the drought by building a 233-mile aqueduct to bring water from the Owens Valley, along with the violence that follows as residents up north get angrier when their water source dries up.

“One of the reasons we had the St. Francis Dam is Mulholland knew that if we had a supply of water to last us at least a year, it would fend off drought and any further damage from these evil guys,” Mendelson added.

When the dam bursts on March 12, 1928, hundreds are killed. “It was the worst, manmade, civil engineering disaster in America in the 20th century.”

The remainder of the musical follows what happens to those who were killed along with those who survived, including Saugus residents and movie cowboys Harry Carey and William S. Hart, as well as the various theories surrounding why the dam burst.

“There were so many theories about what happened, even to this day,” Mendelson said. “It’s really interesting because it’s a way of giving exposition about what these theories are.”

Producers of “The Water Way”, Jerry Danielsen and Braddon Mendelson research before and after photos of the St. Francis Dam disaster as they work on their musical, “The Water Way” in their Canyon Country studio on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

While not all events portrayed in the musical are 100% historically accurate, with the help of a board of advisors and thorough research, much remains true, according to Mendelson, who hopes this family-friendly adaption of history can even be used for educational purposes.

“It’s a living, breathing thing, and they can take part in it,” he said, referring to students. “I think that everybody in this country is interested in this story, (especially) Californians.”

The musical is now in pre-production, as both the script and lyrics are done, while Danielsen continues to work on the music.

“I’m in music writing mode,” he said. “We’re going to use instruments that were used in those times to try to give it the spirit of the time period, so mandolins and guitars and some percussion. But then, as it goes through time … then there can be like, even jazzy elements maybe, and some drums.”

The pair hopes to premiere the musical locally either late this year or early next year.

For more information, visit thewaterwaymusical.com.

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