Life & Culture

This Orthodox mum was the first woman to cycle round the world

A new musical features the incredible life of Annie Cohen Chopkovsky


You would think that any composer worth their salt would avoid like the plague the prospect of writing a new musical with a lead character called Annie. But for composer Freya Catrin Smith, the main creative force behind a new musical called Ride now receiving its premiere at the Charing Cross Theatre, the story of Annie Cohen Chopkovsky was irresistible.

Until 1894 the Latvian-born immigrant had led the seemingly conventional if difficult life of an observant Jewish girl raised in a Boston tenement.

“She came from Riga with her family when she was really small,” explains composer-lyricist Smith, who has a particular interest in writing female-led stories.

“It was a pretty tough time. She lost her parents really young, we don’t know how. They died when she was a teenager so she then took on caring duties for her younger siblings, including her younger brother who died when she was 17. Then she married and by the time she was in her early 20s, she had three children of her own to look after. So there’s a huge amount of grief and struggle in her life.”

What Annie Chopovsky Cohen did next was as simple as it was unexpected. She became the first woman to cycle around the world. And she did it alone.

It is a story that has been written in biographical and novelistic forms by Chopovsky’s great-grand-nephew Peter Zheutlin, an American author and journalist whose house in Massachusetts has a room dedicated to his great aunt including a version of the heavy Sterling bike she used on her incredible journey. However, Smith’s way into Annie’s story was from a different direction.

“I had just been to see Hamilton and then I read this thing online about how the show only passes the Bechdel test [which judges productions on whether they represent women by showing them talking about something other than a man] by just one line, which is a bit nuts. So I began looking for women from history. Not necessarily women who we could celebrate, but women whose stories were knotty and complex.”

The result is a new two-hander musical starring the young Jewish actor-singer Liv Andrusier, who graduated from the Royal Academy of Music last year. Andrusier's daunting job is to reflect the psychology of a 19th-century woman who subverted just about every convention of both her community and wider society.

“What prompted her to go off and leave her children, her home, her siblings and her husband?” asks Smith. “What was going on internally?”

All are compelling questions. Yet what really drew Smith to the story was not only the astounding act of Annie’s individualism in a period and place that demanded conformity from women, but another aspect of Annie’s character. Because when Zheutlin researched his great-aunt’s journey it emerged that Annie not only cycled around the world but that she deceived and lied her way across it too.

This part of the story might never have been known had it not been for Zheutlin, who has both championed his great-aunt and exposed the fantastical side of her character.

“He traced her journey based off newspaper articles,” says Smith. “Annie talked to the press wherever she was and it just became apparent in his research that she was making stuff up all the time. The dots just didn’t join up. That was the light bulb for me. Annie was such a show-woman and she loved to embellish the truth. She would say she was a doctor, a lawyer or that she went to Harvard, and she did lectures. She was obviously smart enough to convince people all this was true.”

What prompted these deceptions is a matter of conjecture, inevitably. Perhaps it helped Annie’s entrepreneurial talents which saw her attracting sponsorship during her travels.
“We know her best as Annie Londonderry,” says Smith. “She changed her name with a sponsorship deal with Londonderry Lithia, an American mineral water company.”

This also had the benefit of disguising Annie’s Jewishness as her route took her across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, perhaps using steamers, boats and other forms of transport more than she cared to admit, but still cycling more than most humans ever had, and on a machine with one low gear that was unable to freewheel. When travelling at speed down a hill she would have had to lift her feet off the madly spinning pedals.

“She was one of the first influencers,” says Smith. “She changed her name, she had ads all over herself and she used sponsorship to get around the world on this bike. Being an immigrant at that time with so much antisemitism it feels quite natural that she would hide her identity.”

It also feels quite understandable that an intelligent woman might want to present the version of herself to the world that would have been possible without the chauvinism and racism that trapped her.

“Definitely,” agrees Smith. “She was an immigrant and poor but at the same time fiercely intelligent and full of potential. I think Liv does a beautiful job of showing that complexity while also just making you completely fall in love with the character.”

“She is weirdly similar to me,” says Andrusier during a break in rehearsal. “She’s literally my height and also has brown eyes. She’s more ‘Russia’ than I am,” continues the performer, whose antecedents were Polish before her family lineage ended up in Mill Hill.

“But it’s the first time I’ve had a role where I can almost sit back in it because it’s so close to me. And also being a Jewish actor, there are things that I didn’t realise were in me already that I could just draw upon.”

As with Annie, identity has been an issue for Andrusier — more so than one might imagine in 21st-century Britain.

“For years growing up when I was acting as a child I was told to hide my Jewishness all the time,” she says.

“It wasn’t just industry people. It was also other Jewish people who would say it as a protective sort of thing. So like Annie I was going to change my name to a more anglicised version. My real name is Olivia Aaron. But then in drama school I decided to go with my grandmother’s maiden name.”

Andrusier first auditioned for the role of Annie while she was still at drama school. But it was the supporting role of Martha, the fictional newspaper secretary to whom Annie reluctantly reveals her true identity, that Andrusier originally went for. Only after being offered the lead did she discover just how brave Annie was.

“She spent so many nights sleeping in random places like stables and on the road. And it was crazy for a woman of that time to leave her family. Her husband actually was fully supportive. It wasn’t just a case of ‘Oh, I’m just gonna leave my children and go on this crazy adventure.’ She was sending money back.

“It’s really important people know that and not assume that because he was an Orthodox Jewish husband that he was controlling. In fact he worshipped her.

“Yes, she wanted to break out and fulfil this dream but she was also doing it because she knew that she could make some money for her family.”

Andrusier reckons that sheer grief was a motivating factor behind Annie’s need to travel.
“I think a lot of the trip was spurred by the loss of her younger brother, Jacob. She’d effectively raised him after her parents died,” she says.

The young star of the show is quickly building a reputation as a talent to watch. During the pandemic she was selected to star in the ‘Play In A Day’ initiative for Sky Arts. The project gave two graduates the chance to perform a new play in a single day opposite musical theatre stars Maria Friedman and Tyrone Huntley.

Before that, her CV includes such musicals as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Palladium and one other show whose lead role is her current character’s namesake.

“I was 12 or 13 when I auditioned for the role of Annie [the musical] in a production that was at the Bloomsbury Theatre.” she says. But despite the size of that show, Andrusier took the role of the famous, red-haired, little orphan Annie in her stride.

“I have been performing since I was eight,” says Andrusier. “But this Annie has been the biggest challenge for me,” she adds.

Ride is at the Charing Cross Theatre until September 17

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