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By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Vestal, N.Y. Reporter 

Broadway musicals and the Holocaust

 


Can Broadway musicals teach us about changing American attitudes to the Holocaust? In “Echoes of the Holocaust on the American Musical Stage” (McFarland and Co., Inc, Publishers), Jessica Hillman, an assistant professor of theater and dance at the State University of New York at Fredonia, uses eight Broadway shows to examine how this “unique American art form” has served as a “venue for playing out our cultural obsession with Nazism and the Holocaust.” Her focus is on the public perceptions of the Holocaust and how, as popular opinion changed, so did the portrayal of the Nazi era on stage.

Three musicals featured—“The Sound of Music,” “Cabaret” and “The Producers”—deal directly with issues of Nazism, with the first two focusing on Germany prior to World War II and the latter on Nazis in the 20th century. One musical, “Milk and Honey,” takes place in Israel in the early 1960s, while the action of the remaining musicals—“Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Rothchilds” “Rags” and “Ragtime”—take place before World War II, either in Europe or the United States. Hillman considers them relevant to her study due to their “nostalgia” for either the Jewish world destroyed by the Nazis or the biblical Jewish promise of a homeland in Canaan.

She believes that it’s impossible to look at any Jewish-themed work without taking the Holocaust into consideration—even when it doesn’t speak directly to the events of World War II. While her premise is not always convincing, Hillman does an excellent job showing how these musicals developed, an analysis that will be greatly appreciated by theatrical historians.

After a general discussion showing the increased portrayal of the Holocaust in American culture during the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, Hillman examines each musical in detail. These chapters feature information about the background and history of each production, a synopsis of the plot for the more obscure musicals and, when relevant, biographical information about the authors, lyricists and composers. What will interest musical theater lovers most is her treatment of the changes made to material, not only during the tryout stages of the original productions, but in revivals.

Hillman’s premise is best displayed during her discussion of “The Sound of Music.” Although the musical is not about Jews or the Holocaust, its plot hinges on the Nazi takeover of Austria. The author focuses on how the use of Nazi symbols (for example, the swastika) changed over time. In the original production, although the swastika appeared in uniforms during tryouts, by the time the show opened on Broadway, they were no longer used. In fact, for most of the musical, the Nazis’ presence was offstage—mentioned, but not seen. While the film version used more Nazi symbolism, it downplayed or eliminated the political discussions that had occurred in the stage version. Hillman notes that by the 1998 stage revival, though, “the Nazi imagery and attitude toward the Holocaust embraced a grimmer reality than had been seen in the original productions....Swastikas were back on Nazi uniforms, and Nazi characters came directly on stage, on several occasions. In particular, during the final concert three large, red shocking swastika banners were the background for the singing” of two songs. What was once considered inappropriate was now necessary to make the play feel more realistic. According to Hillman, Americans could no longer think about World War II without thinking of the Holocaust.

Less convincing is Hillman’s attempt to show how the Holocaust resonates in the musicals she labels “nostalgic.” For “Rags” and “Ragtime”—both of which focus on Jewish immigrants to the United States during the early part of the 20th century—she suggests the characters’ “suffering could stand in for the suffering of the Holocaust,” although she also acknowledges that the future of these immigrants was far more positive than that of their brethren who remained in Europe. Her reason for calling the musicals nostalgic is that the time period in which they took place was “part of a ‘gentler’ time and calls up Holocaust associations in contrast to the relative ‘ease’ of the immigrant period.” While I’ve seen neither musical on stage, I am familiar with the cast recording of “Rags” and don’t remember making the associations Hillman suggests. However, that may be more a matter of age and temperament.

My favorite chapter focuses on the musical with which I am least familiar, “The Rothchilds.” It was the least successful of the productions discussed, perhaps due to what Hillman calls its “Jewish specificity and a dark, sometimes aggressively angry tone that even the creators found troublesome.” If they accurately portrayed the oppression the real-life Rothchild family faced in 17th century Europe, the creators risked sounding anti-Christian. They also worried about the backlash that might occur by focusing too greatly on the Rothchilds’ monetary success and financial abilities.

Hillman suggests that the musical “simultaneously appeals to wistful memory, while angrily resonating with the Holocaust, and rejecting easy calls to nostalgia.” While I’m not certain this is correct, it sounds fascinating, which makes me wish I had seen it on stage.

Other interesting chapters discuss the idealized nostalgia of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the Borsht Belt humor used to ridicule the Nazis in “The Producers.” While this is a scholarly work, Hillman’s prose is easy to read, although her writing style is dry and factual, rather than exciting. However, the story of how these works came into being provides its own excitement, at least for those who love the Broadway stage.

 

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