Musicals can move us as deeply as any other medium — so why not portray the Shoah?
Pity musicals. I have a Second Life avatar and a science-and-technology column, but nothing marks me out so clearly as a saddo as the admission that I have a passion for stories told through song. Please don’t tell any of the cool people — including Guardian blogger Shirley Dent, who recently described the decision to stage a musical based on the life of Anne Frank in Spain as “mesmerisingly dreadful”. By her own admission, she hasn’t seen the show, and neither have I, but never mind; even if the production were a zinger, she says, “the idea appalls”.
Her concern is mainly that it is demonstrative of a “cheap pathos”, that the Holocaust has become a “cathartic free-for-all” that anyone can leap on for creative inspiration with a guaranteed emotional response.
That might be the case. But what also troubles her is the idea of the Holocaust being represented through song and dance at all. “There is something beyond bad taste in trying to squeeze show-stopping numbers out of the real diary of an adolescent girl destined to be slaughtered by the state,” she writes. “Musicals give us pumped-up-and-easy emotional hooks… I do not think that the Holocaust is off-limits to the arts — only that it’s best left to great artists who won’t indulge in emotional narcissism.” If you want to look at one of history’s most troubling and difficult questions, she continues, only “troubling and difficult art” will suffice.
The implication being that a musical cannot be troubling, or difficult to watch, or consist of anything other than “show-stopping numbers” — presumably with dancing girls, sequins, tassels, jazz hands and generally puttin’ on the Ritz.
Which is strange, as I recently saw a musical about another tragic Jew, who was sentenced to be slaughtered by the state, with singing and dancing and everything. And it was one of the most painful things I ever watched.
Parade, by Jason Robert Brown, tells the true story of the flawed 1913 trial in Atlanta of Leo Frank, who was falsely accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl who worked at his factory, and sentenced to death. The sensational coverage of the case provoked widespread antisemitism, and when Frank’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, he was abducted from prison and lynched.
Is there a jazzy, toe-tapping, show-stopping number? Yes. At one point, the actor playing Frank gets up and sings and dances suggestively as he acts out the fabricated accusations of sexual harassment from other factory girls. Is there singing? All the way, from the dead child’s mother’s calls of grief to Frank’s unaccompanied lament of the Shema as he stands with the noose around his neck. Is there dancing? Oh yes. After Frank is sentenced to hang, the crowd roars its approval and spins and twirls for joy around him and his wife Lucille, as they cling to each other, frozen with terror.
Try to imagine the contrast on stage.
I’m no director, but already I can picture how an actress playing Anne might dance with all the abandon of a teenage girl, expressing how confined she was in reality. I can imagine Anne singing as she thinks of the sounds she must never make for fear of her life. One of the most saddening things about Anne Frank’s diary is that she was, despite her circumstances, a normal teenage girl, and even with the Nazis outside she was still falling in love and grappling with difficult family relationships. These stories have been told in song since time immemorial.
As for songs of pain and loss and sorrow, there’s everything from John Dowland to Sinead O’Connor. I don’t, off the top of my head, know of any songs dedicated to Jews in hiding and the cramped constriction they feel, but that sounds like an artistic challenge, not a taboo.
The entire point of art is to use your particular medium to express an emotion, or philosophy, or reality. In Anne’s case, it was a diary, and it is one of the most powerful texts one can read. But other media do exist. And while you may know people who do not read or watch plays, did you ever meet anyone who wasn’t moved by music?
That is not to say that Anne Frank: The Musical couldn’t be a clanger. Any piece of art could be. It could be mawkish. It could be drippy and oversimplistic.
I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen it. There are bad musicals just as there are bad books, bad plays and bad films.
But most of us — all of us — can think of a song or melody that moves us deeply to almost any emotion we can think of. A story strung together with such pearls is not necessarily clichéd or trite. One of the most popular musicals on right now is about puppets trying to come to terms with their sexuality. (Aside: go see Avenue Q. It’s fantastic.) Indeed, there could be something strangely defiant, or expressive, in telling the story about Jews in hiding, desperately trying to keep themselves invisible and silent, through the medium which most utilises sound and movement.