Monthly Archives: March 2010
The problem with writing a show in which somebody dies of an illness that isn’t the subject of the show (Rent, La Traviata) is that as a rule the only way to convey clearly that characters are sick, other than making them talk or sing about it explicitly, is to have them cough. And the instant somebody coughs onstage, the audience knows s/he’s going to die before the end of the show, which makes it impossible for the event to have any suspense or surprise.
So Podhoretz responded to our response, here:
Signs of Life Strife by John Podhoretz
A few days ago, I called attention to a quote from one of the creators of a new musical called Signs of Life, which is set in and around the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. (I compared it to The Producers, and specifically to “Springtime for Hitler,” the musical-within-the-musical, described by its deranged creator as “a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.”) The quote in question averred that the questions about Nazi era Germans and how they responded to their leaders had a great deal to teach us about America over the past decade—an observation of which the best that can be said is that it is a bit more tasteful than the very notion of a musical set at Thereseinstadt.
The writers and creators of Signs of Life, evidently thrilled that anybody is willing to write about them at all, have fired a broadside at me using the old “how can he criticize our show without seeing it” gambit:
[He quotes here our letter in full.]
Now, while I do place myself very much on the anti side on the admittedly complex aesthetic question of using the Holocaust as an artistic setting—and, not incidentally, on the anti side when it comes to the use of the musical form as a vehicle for the serious treatment of just about any topic, notwithstanding my deep love of musicals and the American songbook they created—that wasn’t the reason I wrote the item. I wrote the item because of something the show’s composer, Joel Derfner, said. Which was this: “The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad.’ It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”
Now let’s parse this. What happened 30 years ago in this country? Ronald Reagan’s election. What happened nine years ago? George W. Bush’s inauguration. Who’s making repulsive and unwarranted associations now? The Signs of Life team is right that someone said something contemptible, but it wasn’t I.
And thanks for the invitation, but I’ll pass; I already did my time years ago when, courtesy of P.J. O’Rourke, who secured it from God-knows-where, I once read the entirety of the screenplay for the Jerry Lewis epic, The Day the Clown Cried.
Well, before we could stop ourselves, we wrote a response to his response to our response.
Another Open Letter to John Podhoretz:
Upon learning that you were pressured into reading the screenplay for The Day The Clown Cried, we are left with nothing but compassion. No one could emerge from such an experience unscathed, and we will be sure to pen an angry letter to P.J. O’Rourke.
We will simply point out:
We seem to have hit the exact intersection of your two beliefs that the Holocaust is unsuitable as a subject for art and that the musical is a form unsuited for serious subjects. Though we clearly disagree with both points (and look for support to pieces like Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 13, Anna Sokolow’s dance piece Dreams, and Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret on the first and Show Boat, West Side Story, and, well, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret on the second), we understand that your beliefs reflect the same goal we have—to do honor to the memory of the Shoah.
And to be clear: we believe that the Shoah transcends partisan politics, and we did not write Signs of Life to send a partisan message; the lessons to be found in it are moral ones. No single piece of art can hope to encompass the Shoah, and Signs of Life does not try: it deals with the specific perversities of Theresienstadt, and must therefore grapple with issues of truth and power, representation and reality. We explore what happens when leaders lie to their citizens. You and Joel undoubtedly have different ideas about which American leaders have done so over the course of the last few decades, but you also undoubtedly agree that these remain vital issues no matter who is in power.
In writing Signs of Life, we have tried to treat the material with honesty, and survivors of Theresienstadt, the only real judges, have consistently told us that they saw their own experiences mirrored accurately and without sentimentality onstage. We’d like to renew our invitation for you to see the show, perhaps with P.J. O’Rourke. We suspect you won’t take us up on it, but we’d love to offer you the opportunity to base your criticism of Signs of Life on experience.
Joel Derfner (composer)
Len Schiff (lyricist)
Peter Ullian (bookwriter)
A few days ago, an article in the New York Times mentioned my new show, Signs of Life, and quoted me talking about some of the resonances the piece has in society today. John Podhoretz, neoconservative columnist for the New York Post and editor of Commentary magazine, took exception to my words and wrote this:
SPRINGTIME FOR DUBYA?
by John Podhoretz
I’m sure you’re looking forward to the new off-Broadway musical, “Signs of Life,” which offers what promises to be a wonderfully tuneful look at the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. But it turns out, according to tomorrow’s New York Times, that the musical really isn’t about the Holocaust after all, which is probably a wise thing, since The Producers got there first with its signature number, “Springtime for Hitler.” No, it turns out, the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush:
That show, which had its premiere on Thursday, centers on Lorelei, an artist who agrees to create pretty pictures of the camp for Nazi propaganda but who, with other prisoners, schemes to get her drawings of the real horrors to the outside world.
“The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad,’ ” Mr. Derfner said. “It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”
No, this is not, as they say, from The Onion.
My collaborators and I were taken aback by the post, and we would like to respond by posting the following open letter to Mr. Podhoretz.
Dear Mr. Podhoretz:
You are well-known as a protector of the memory of the Holocaust and as someone who, by his own admission, knows “the lyrics to every show tune ever written.” We were therefore dismayed to read your post on Commentary about our new off-Broadway musical, Signs of Life. Your casually insulting aside about the “wonderfully tuneful” quality of the show—which as far as we can tell you have not seen—is irresponsible enough, but to make the ugly accusation that we believe “the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush” is contemptible.
The characters in our show must participate in the Nazi propaganda machine in order to survive; when they realize the implications of their participation they face ethical choices that endanger their lives. But the obligation of citizens across the political spectrum to question our leaders and evaluate the truth of their answers did not end on V-Day.
The idea you seem to advocate—that if you put an event as vastly horrific as the Holocaust onstage you should do it as a museum piece, rather than exploring what we might learn from it about human nature—implies that today’s society is no longer capable of a Holocaust, which is a position both false and dangerous.
We would like to invite you to see Signs of Life and to judge based on experience rather than distortion and mockery whether our show honors the memory of those slaughtered in the Holocaust. Please e-mail us and we’ll arrange tickets for whatever date you’d like.
Joel Derfner (composer)
Len Schiff (lyricist)
Peter Ullian (bookwriter)