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Capturing Gloucester's fishing legacy in words, music

It is, Frank Tedesco says, an incredible statistic: 10,000 fishermen lost at sea since the birth of the industry in Gloucester.

"Back in the 1800s and the early part" of the last century, "on the monument down on the boulevard you see 200 names one year, 250 names, then 300 names the next year, then maybe 150," Tedesco said over a glass of red wine at the waterfront Gloucester House Restaurant last week.

"This goes on year after year after year," he said, "and you start to wonder, how did they cope?"

It's a topic that Tedesco and some of his friends have been investigating for roughly a decade, the answers expressed in four CDs of songs, documentary interviews, and even a music video. Now the story is told in a musical play, "The Souls of the Sea," having its world premiere tonight and running through Sunday in Gloucester.

"This is something we need, something we kind of long for now, this great faith and fortitude. In a world where we're beset by the possibility of sudden disaster, of tsunami or terrorists or anything, how do you cope?" said Tedesco, an architect by trade. "The city of Gloucester, these people have been faced with sudden disasters . . . for hundreds of years, so it might make sense to see how they did it, how this great community has continued on."

Actors from around Cape Ann will appear in "Souls," being staged in the Gloucester High School theater. The show features many of the songs from the CDs, with words written by Tedesco and music by veteran performer Allen Estes. Theatre in the Pines founder Nan Webber directs.

The play tells the present-day story of the crew of the fishing boat Bella Figlia, their families and friends -- and their fate.

It features scenes on the docks, in the bars and on the boat, places Tedesco seems to know well. Like Estes, he's a transplant from elsewhere in the Boston area who moved to Gloucester after many visits.

Perhaps the most memorable was a Christmas-vacation trip during college, when he prevailed on a friend to take him out on a fishing boat so he could shoot photographs for a class project. A storm brought giant seas and a severe case of seasickness for Tedesco that amused the crew no end. But he also got an eyeful of the courage required of fishermen.

In the mid-1990s, shortly after the fishing boat Andrea Gail went down -- as chronicled in "The Perfect Storm" -- with some of their friends onboard, Tedesco sought out Estes, who was playing at a bar called the Rhumb Line. Tedesco brandished a notebook full of lyrics and suggested Estes could set them to music.

Their first song together was "Where'd They Go," which quickly became a local favorite and is now the official song of Gloucester. More songs came as they studied the town's response to tragedy.

"People who live in Gloucester or Portsmouth, N.H., or Portland, Maine, or Chesapeake Bay, any of these places that know the fishing industry, can really embrace these songs and understand what we're saying in each one of them," said Estes. (Add New Bedford to the list. The play, with the same cast, will travel there for performances in November.)

People in Gloucester will react favorably to the musical, even though it's a warts-and-all portrait of the fishing life, said Webber, a native whose family goes back to the 1700s in the area.

"It's real, there isn't anything phony-baloney or manufactured," said Webber.

"It's got a lot of true Gloucester charm, he's captured quite a bit of the fishermen's superstitions, he's captured the worries of the women who wait and pray," Webber said. "And yet he hasn't been schmaltzy about it and drummed up this romanticized version of Gloucester. It is what we are."

Like real fishermen today, the crew members of the fictional Bella Figlia are "beset by the fact that they have all these regulations now, they have to go out too far to fish because of closed fisheries, and it's the winter, the most dangerous time, and they need to go out to make money to support themselves," Tedesco said.

"The story is about the conflict between them and the regulations, there's a Coast Guard element in play, and the men going out, and the women hoping they won't have to go out, but they do, and then there's an unfortunate thing that happens, and how does the community deal with it?"

Should we use the word tragedy?

"Yeah," says Tedesco, "but also use the word triumph."

He notes he is most inspired by the women left behind, how they carry on.

A sort of Greek chorus of four fishermen on stage through much of the play comes from a sense of connection with the lost, he said.

"We interviewed this 95-year-old widow named Martha Hill. Her husband, Ezra, went down in 1962. She's sharp as a tack, and she goes, 'For years I could hear him come up the stairs, and one night he pinched me,' " Tedesco said with a smile.

"This is a woman who goes to church every day. She's sober as a judge. There's this connection. All the tragedy and longing from both sides -- you wonder about it."

"The Souls of the Sea" will play tonight-Sunday 7:30 p.m. at Gloucester High. Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors, and available online at soulsoftheseamusical.com, which also lists stores selling tickets, and at the door. A quarter of proceeds will benefit the theater program at the school, where Webber taught.

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