Charlotte Salomon produced an extraordinary series of autobiographical gouaches with texts. She overlaid them on transparent paper or wrote straight onto her paintings to provide dialogue, comments and even suggestions of musical accompaniments. Salomon provides a unique account of Jewish family life in Germany, and later France, spanning the troubled years from before World War I until the height of World War II, when she created work in the South of France, before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1943, aged just 26.
“All gone to look for America” sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. In 1974 oral historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel found America by conducting a series of free-form interviews with so-called ‘ordinary’ people – from labourers to teachers – about their working lives. Uninterrupted by their interviewer, they spoke freely about the meaning they found in their work – and its part in the meaning of their lives. The resulting book is a bestseller still.
Kenny Wax is an eclectic producer, responsible for the spectacular award-winning Top Hat, Hollywood musical turned West End show; enchanting children’s shows, including Olivier- nominated Room on the Broom; and now Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada. All are musical adaptations, reimagined with originality and sensitivity, each by the right team for the job.
From the moment Janet Suzman, as Rose, appeared dressed all in black, sitting on a single white bench on an empty stage, the audience was gripped.
Rose was sitting shiva, and as her story unfolded over the next two hours, recounting her journey from a Ukrainian shtetl through all the vicissitudes of a Jewish 20th Century, she sat shiva repeatedly. Each time – for a parent, a child, a husband, victims of the repeated manifestations of antisemitism – a slender shower of sand descending from a hole in the roof of the stage was the only visual accompaniment to Rose’s narrative.
The real-life drama of Jersey Boys – the legendary hit from this terrific all-Jewish creative team – is a world away from this deliciously knowing crowd pleaser. Think a cross between the high-school teenage angst of Grease and the outrageous camp of cult smash hit The Rocky Horror Show. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice go back to Charles Addams’ much-loved cartoon strip for their characters, rather than previous live incarnations, the TV series and the film. Andrew Lippa’s well-placed musical numbers are a vital part of the show’s weird and wonderful atmosphere, his richly varied music and witty lyrics working nimbly to reveal the kooky characters and move the plot along.
Ah, Jewish guilt! It propels so many of us. Like our childhoods, it’s a rich seam to mine and Tony Kushner draws on both to fashion this magnificent musical evocation of a time of social change in America he observed first-hand as a small boy. He gives us the microcosm: how change, against the backdrop of Kennedy’s assassination and the civil rights movement, affects a Jewish family in the Deep South.
Extraordinary stories continue to come out of the Holocaust. And writers continue to explore how human nature is pushed to its limits through the extraordinary circumstances of the Shoah.
Writer Cordelia O’Neill sets her play in 1945. Her protagonists, Jew and Nazi, appear to the audience as interviewees of the Allied forces. Isabella is a Jewish ballerina, interned in a concentration camp; like the well-documented real-life examples where musicians were corralled into playing for camp officials, she is ordered to dance at a party thrown by Annie, wife of the camp commandant, Fredrick. Their lives become not only intertwined, but actually interchanged (almost like Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, in which the future Edward VI, Henry VIII’s little son, swaps lives with a street urchin), so that they actually change places, as Annie sees Fredrick attracted to Isabella, who begins to see Fredrick – himself disillusioned with the war – as a man she could love.
The horrors of the mass killing of disabled children perpetrated by the Nazis are less well-known than the Holocaust, though they were arguably a rehearsal for the final solution. All Our Children, a moving drama from director turned writer Stephen Unwin, tells their story by focusing on one so-called clinic and the awakening conscience of Victor, the ageing doctor who runs it. Unwin dedicates his drama to his son Joey, who has profound learning difficulties, so this first play from the acclaimed theatre director is an intensely personal story.
New Yorkers Abe Burrows (Borowitz), Willie Gilbert (Gomberg) and Jack Weinstock did not invent the title of their 1961 musical satire on big business. It’s actually based on this best-selling lampoon of contemporary office life in 1950s USA, disguised as a self-improvement handbook. Clutching the book he consults on every step of the corporate ladder he climbs from window cleaner to chairman of the board, their anti-hero J Pierrepont Finch really lives up to the book’s subtitle, “The dastard’s guide to fame and fortune”. Burrows had worked with Frank Loesser on Guys and Dolls and the marriage of witty, amoral book with jaunty music and slick lyrics ensured the show’s award-winning success.
Families – can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. Matriarch Yetta Solomon has no intention of allowing a single member of her family to escape from Solomon Rubber. Craig’s title is clever – rubber is self-evidently a filthy business. You can almost smell the huge bales and coils of the stuff looming from every shelf downstairs and off every table upstairs on Ashley Martin-Davis’s towering two-tier shop set. Yetta is not afraid of playing dirty either, from reeling in a reluctant phone customer with the promise of “a special one-time-only deal” (actually almost double the asking price) to micro-managing a Machiavellian insurance scam, with violence thrown in that almost makes this feel like Yiddishe (as against Scandi) noir.