March 8, 2010

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.

Yours truly,

Joel Derfner (composer)
Len Schiff (lyricist)
Peter Ullian (bookwriter)

Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to So Podhoretz responded to our response, here

  1. Mike B. says:

    I don’t see much point in trying to reason with people like Podhoretz. Valiant attempt, though.

  2. Sharon says:


    While I get what you’re trying to say, it seems like this probably won’t work either. It very much seems like a “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with facts” situation. I mean, the guy clearly stated he had no interest in basing his criticism on actually seeing the show, which means he really isn’t interested in silly things like facts and, dare I say, truthiness.

    Also, I will use this opportunity to once again mention I am unbelievably jealous of anyone geographically capable of seeing the show.

  3. Mike and Sharon, I know what you mean. But writing the letters is fun, and if nothing else it helps us clarify our ideas about the piece and about the intersection of art, politics, and morality.

  4. Daniel Alex Finkelstein says:

    Podhoretz isn’t interested in any complex aesthetics or analysis of the Holocaust, nor when or where it’s appropriate to place the same; rather, he attacks the production indirectly and the composer directly through intentional misreading of your quote. Only through et suppositio nil ponit in esse can “the past 30 years” refer specifically to the election of Ronald Reagan (and nothing else), and inclusive of the past 9 refer only to George W. Bush when, in fact, it also includes Obama. Selective reading, intentional misinterpretation, and the fallacy of relevance (introducing The Day the Clown Cried) does not an effective or logical argument make.

  5. It seems the only thing that Podhoretz has proven in his writings on this subject is that he is a cunt. Well done, sir.

  6. Eric says:

    Oh, so he’s just saying you compared Reagan to Hitler, is that it? Can Godwin’s law really work for him if a.) the story in question is already about Nazis and b.) he wants to suggest you’re making the comparison without ever making it?
    I know when we did that reading of this show, I definitely thought I was a baby Adolf, though.

  7. Kevin, in Maryland says:

    I think you made a brilliant effort to explain, which made perfect sense to me, but I think also that your attempt falls on ears that will not hear. You’ve given someone a great opportunity to show off their ability to criticize, rather than to critique.

    ps I so wish I could be in NYC to hear this play.

  8. Reg says:

    Honestly? I think the appeal to the validity of your approach via a parallel to classical music is not only a bit overstated, but also dangerous. Don’t get me wrong: I think the idea of using a musical to treat Holocaust themes is perfectly fine. I just think you can do it legitimately without hauling out the baggage of high vs. low culture here–it doesn’t do anyone any favors.

  9. Ah, but Reg, what makes a Shostakovich symphony high culture and my show low culture–or, rather, what’s the difference between high culture and low culture? I’m not being rhetorical here; to address your comment I need to understand more specifically what you meant!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *