‘Imagine This’ failed because it wasn’t great art

Only stage writing of the very highest order can make a ‘Holocaust musical’ work

By John Nathan, December 18, 2008

Tomorrow night, a skillfully staged, well-performed musical with a good, original score and which has reportedly received nightly standing ovations since it opened one month ago will close. Why? The assumption is because too many people thought the West End stage is no place to deal with the show’s subject — the Holocaust. Last week, Eliane Glaser described how Holocaust museums increasingly attempt to attract the public to their exhibitions by taking the “risk of entertainment”.

But we should be used to that by now. And it is not just museums that offer the Holocaust as a form of entertainment. The Nazis’ crimes are also available for plunder by filmmakers, writers and artists, whose objective is at least in part to entertain.

It was not always so. It used to be that Holocaust art could exist only with the moral authority of testimony, which helps to explain the strange phenomenon of fake memoirs. But now, even comedians like Josh Howie and Larry David are able to find what might be called the funny side to genocide.

Both of them are Jewish. It is not only gentiles who find ways to entertain with the Holocaust. Nor is it only Jews who complain about it. Most of the objections to the musical Imagine This — the show that closes tomorrow — were made by non-Jewish journalists. One review cited director Sir Peter Hall’s damning condemnation of Shoah drama that exploits the Holocaust: “bumming a free ride on the gas chambers”. Few would disagree, yet younger generations of artists are increasingly prepared to take the risk.

In the case of Imagine This, instead of the crass orgy of bad taste that many expected from a musical whose characters are persecuted Jews about to be transported to Treblinka, what we got was a production whose (Jewish) creators were clearly aware of the pitfalls. Yet into the pits they fell.

For those who will never see the show, it is set in the Warsaw Ghetto, where a Jewish acting company stages a musical version of the Masada story in which Jews resist the Romans and commit suicide.

Aside from the musical-within-a-musical structure which unreasonably asks its audience simultaneously to care about the fate of Masada’s Jews and that of the Jewish actors who play them, it is the collision of fictional melodrama and real persecution that grates.

Many were also offended by the mere idea of a Holocaust musical — a phrase so ludicrously loaded with bad taste, Max Bialystock of Mel Brooks’s The Producers will be kicking himself for not using it as the strap-line under Springtime For Hitler, his quest for a surefire failure. The idea, however, is here to stay. Anyone who thinks that the Holocaust can be ring-fenced from artists, whether good or bad, is deluded.

The day after Imagine This producer Beth Trachtenberg announced to her cast that their show was to close, I spoke to the bloodied but unbowed director Timothy Sheader. Though he doubts that the term “Holocaust musical” accurately describes his production, for Sheader there is nothing controversial about the notion. “I don’t really care if it’s a Holocaust musical,” he said. “So what? As long as it works and it has been done with integrity.” Sir Peter Hall, whose generation is much closer to the Holocaust, would probably disagree.

Where Imagine This failed was in satisfying a simple rule of thumb about musical theatre, which is that the more suffering there is on stage, the better the writers have to be. And in the case of Imagine This, they just weren’t good enough. Others will certainly try in the future. Who can stop them? As for the idea that the Holocaust is somehow off-limits for entertainment, forget it.

John Nathan is the JC’s theatre editor

    Last updated: 12:34pm, December 18 2008