An engagement photo of Littleton-based composer Denise Gentilini's grandparents, Kourken and Malvine Handjian, from August 1927.

(Photo: Courtesy of Denise Gentilini)

This interview first aired on 4/18/2016. 

Emmy Award-winning composer Denise Gentilini, who lives in Littleton, was inspired by her family tree to create her new musical. "I Am Alive," which Gentilini co-wrote with Los Angeles singer-songwriter Lisa Nemzo, tells the story of Gentilini's grandparents' courtship. They met in a refugee camp after fleeing from Armenia a century ago as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  

The musical debuts Tuesday at the June Swaner Gates Concert Hall in the University of Denver's Newman Center for the Performing Arts. Gentilini spoke with Ryan Warner about her grandparents' love story and why she felt compelled to share it.

Gentilini on why one song wasn't enough

"Their story of survival has been a very large part of my life. I did a documentary about them in 2002, telling their story and I knew that I had to do something in a format that was different. ... I thought it would be a new and different approach that would hopefully reach more people."

Why the title, "I Am Alive"

"I wanted to recognize that they had thrived because they survived and be more positive about it. While there is the sadness and the graphic nature of what they went through in the musical, basically, in the end, it's triumphant."  

On how this part of her family's history motivates her as an artist

"I think that it is in everything that I do. I recall years ago that there was a friend who listened to my music and said to me, 'There's grief in what you write.' And I don't believe I realized what she was saying until later on. And I think that we carry this pain in us of our ancestors. ... It's very painful. It's painful to imagine that my grandparents went to their graves knowing they really didn't get the recognition they deserved."