Plays and musicals about the Holocaust can be separated into two groups: those that attempt to understand the causes of the Holocaust and the effects of its legacy; and those that simply seek to document it. Musical Chairs, the new musical by Joel Hirschhorn, is of the latter type. It aims to answer no questions; its message is simply, "Never again."
The story takes place in Theresienstadt, the "model ghetto" established by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. The Nazi propaganda surrounding Theresienstadt was that it was a "gift to the Jews," a model community where artists and intellectuals flourished in peaceful and healthy conditions. Theresienstadt was the only ghetto the Red Cross was allowed to visit, and what inspectors were shown allayed fears of mistreatment. Even if Theresienstadt had been as represented, its existence would not have mitigated the atrocities committed by the Nazis at the other camps. But Theresienstadt was not as it appeared; starvation and brutality reigned, and when the inspectors came, the Jews were forced to play along with the Nazi lies, in order to protect their lives.
Musical Chairs is the story of the Theresienstadt orchestra. Even though this ensemble was used by the Nazis to perform for international visitors, its members were not exempt from mistreatment, and those who incurred the disapproval of the Gestapo would be beaten, transported to the death camps, or killed outright. When we join the play, the orchestra can hardly be called an orchestra at all, its membership having been reduced to six. At the center is Rachel Rubin, a young pianist and composer of no small talent. To Rachel, music is as necessary as food, and a powerful weapon against disintegration of the will. Rachel's siblings are in the orchestra with her: her sister, who responds to their confinement pragmatically, trying to work within the system to gain small privileges for her family; and her brother, who is young and angry enough to flout the Nazis' rules with open contempt. But by far the most interesting character in the orchestra is Aaron, a doctor turned conductor who calculates the tremendous losses from the Holocaust not in the number of lives lost, but in terms of the works of art that will never be created.
The orchestra's main antagonists are the two Nazis who run the camp. One, Schmidt, is a cold sadist who takes pleasure in tormenting the musicians. The other, Schell, shows some sympathy toward the Jews, but finds himself unable to act on his more charitable impulses out of fear he will lose his position in the Nazi hierarchy. The contrast between Schmidt and Schell raises the question of which is more evil -- a man who is simply heartless, or one who performs heartless acts despite his knowledge that they are wrong.
Composer Joel Hirschhorn gives Musical Chairs the right mix of touching ballads, stirring anthems, and the occasional upbeat comic relief number. The individual songs are memorable, and there are some beautiful themes at work here. Hirschhorn has a wonderful facility with theatrical writing; he chooses the right moments in his show to musicalize, and the characters never unnaturally "feel a song coming on."
Unfortunately, Hirschhorn's lyric-writing abilities are not on a par with his music-writing. On average, the show's lyrics are merely adequate, with occasional flashes of perceptive metaphor or thought-provoking commentary. But the few brilliant touches are outweighed by numerous pedestrian couplets. When we are told that Rachel's music "makes [the other Jews] strong" and also "sweeps them along," one cannot help but cringe. Hirschhorn also places too much reliance on lyrical repetition -- the ABAB rhyme scheme is less effective when the entire "A" line is the same each time.
But the biggest problem with Musical Chairs is that Hirschhorn, who also wrote the book, doesn't seem to trust his material enough to let it stand on its own. Rather than rely on the unadorned story of the Theresienstadt orchestra, Hirschhorn imposes on his characters various family relationships and romantic entanglements. It is as if Hirschhorn fears the acts of Nazi brutality he is retelling will not be sufficiently traumatic unless they break up families and lovers, so before every tragedy, Hirschhorn reveals a previously unknown connection between his characters. He also creates a frame for the story, in which Rachel's entire tale is told by a present-day Israeli grandmother to her teenage grandson, in an attempt to convince him not to leave the country out of fear of Palestinian violence. Many of the relationships are underdeveloped, so their revelation ultimately means little. The opening and closing scenes of the frame are implausible and their heavy-handed attempt to find an easy analogy between Theresienstadt and Israel's current political situation does injustice to both. Hirschhorn has the makings of a compelling story without any of this. Aaron's determination to keep the orchestra performing at its best despite the uncertainty of life in Theresienstadt; the terror of a performance when the musicians know one wrong note will mean transportation or death; the orchestra's attempts to intercede on behalf of their doomed members; Schell's moral crisis over whether to stand up to Schmidt -- these are the things that Musical Chairs does best, and the window-dressing just detracts from them.
Jules Aaron's direction and Kay Cole's choreography are perfectly fitting. The staging of the title number as an increasingly frantic game of musical chairs in which the Nazis' removal of a chair means death for the person remaining unseated is a simple and powerful allegory. The set, by Don Gruber, is dominated by a two-level two-part rusty scaffold on which sit several mismatched wooden chairs. Without backdrops or props, this rickety set effectively suggests several different locations, as well as an overall feel of poverty and deterioration. The ten-member ensemble is also effective, lending strong voices and soaring harmonies to Hirschhorn's music.
The show clearly needs work, but so many of the elements are already in place. Musical Chairs is a twenty-five dollar ticket. It's worth it, both for what the show is now, and for the makings of what it might become.
El Portal Center for the Arts Circle Theatre, The Home of the Actors Alley; Jim Brochu, Artistic Director; Pegge Forrest, Managing Director; presents Musical Chairs, a World Premiere. Book, Words and Music by Joel Hirschhorn; Story by Jennifer Dlouhy Carter; Choreographed by Kay Cole; Directed by Jules Aaron. Props by Charlie Vaughn; Sound Design by Steve Shaw; Costumes by Zale Morris; Set Designer Don Gruber; Lighting Designer Jim Moody; Production Stage Manager Jessica Newman. Produced for Actors Alley by Barbara Haber. Special Thanks to the Museum of Tolerance.
Musical Chairs plays at the Circle Theatre at El Portal through September 23, 2001.
Photo by Ed Krieger