Terezín musical headed to Chicago
'Signs of Life' looks at the power of art under desperate circumstances
Posted: August 28, 2013
Most people in the Czech Republic are vaguely aware of Terezín, the historical military garrison town that served as a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. But not everyone is aware of the full story, including how it was used to fool the Red Cross that nothing all that bad was going on, that the camp was more like a big cultural center.
A musical called Signs of Life has been trying to bring attention that story and more details about the artists that were among the predominantly Jewish inmates of the camp.
The play has already had a run off-Broadway in New York in 2010 and a new production is about to launch in Chicago, running from Sept. 18 to Oct. 27 at the Zacek McVay Theater at the Victory Gardens.
While the characters are fictionalized, all of the major plot points of the play are based in fact. The play focuses on a small group of Jewish inmates of Terezín, who despite the conditions they live under are trying to put together a theater group and stage a play of their own. One member of the group and others across the camp are also making sketches of life around them. When a Red Cross inspector comes, they try to get some of the more realistic sketches to him and make other efforts to get the truth out.
When: Sept. 18-Oct. 27
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago
Filming in the Terezín Ghetto 1942-1945
When: Aug. 29-Feb. 23, 2014, daily except Saturday
Where: Robert Guttmann Gallery, U Staré školy 3, Prague 1
The Nazis, on the other hand, are presenting Terezín to the Red Cross as an ideal city where Jews are allowed to participate in various cultural activities - a massive lie, of course. Terezín was a transit point that shipped inmates to death camps like Auschwitz. Some 144,000 lived in the camp and of those, some 33,000 died of starvation or illness, particularly typhus, and 88,000 were sent to extermination camps.
At the beginning of August, a staged reading took place in Prague, the first performance in the Czech Republic. The actors from that reading - current students and recent alumni from American University - also had a chance to visit Terezín, known as Theresienstadt in German, to see some of the real locations that are depicted in the play.
The Chicago cast will be composed of professional actors and have the same producers but a different director. One actor, Brennan Dougherty, who plays a young boy named Wolfie, will be the same in both productions.
Gail Humphries Mardirosian directed the Prague reading, and has long been trying to get the word out about what went on at Terezín. Humphries Mardirosian is a professor at American University and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the Academy of Performing arts in Prague. She has written extensively on the subject. "There is much to be taught to the world about the power of the arts and the creation of art under situations of enormous duress," Humphries Mardirosian told The Prague Post. "The enduring power of the art from Terezín is surely testimony in and of itself. Through our production, we say never again and honor the artists of Terezín in the way that we know best - through performance." Some fine artworks from Terezín do exist and are parts of many museum collections.
Grammy winner Paul Bogaev was a music supervisor for the Prague reading and will also be involved in the Chicago production. His theater credits include work on Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, Cats, Les Miserables and Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark, as well as films like The Emperor's New Groove.
At a discussion following the Prague reading he also commented on the power of art. "I find it very ironic that art, particularly painting, was such a positive thing for these people [in Terezín] when [German dictator] Adolf Hitler was a failed artist. I know the power of art positively and the power of not being recognized or the anger and bitterness that can come from that," he said. "I find it striking; I have always found it striking that he was angry and a failed artist,"
He admitted that before joining the project he did not know the basic story. "I actually came to this project fairly recently. … I am sorry to say I have never even heard of Terezín or Theresienstadt, and it's been one of the most profound and moving projects I've ever worked on," he said.
When you think of telling the story of people trying to survive in a concentration camp, a musical isn't what comes first to most people. Humphries Mardirosian gave some insight, although it wasn't her decision to make it a musical. "There is something about the emotional power of music that I find compelling with this production. We often say in the theater that when you can no long speak of something you sing about it. I have found it so. As a director who is only interested in theater that asks important questions and provokes dialogue around substantive issues, I have found that music often reaches audience on a subliminal level," she said.
"One of my Czech theater colleagues sent out an e-mail after our performance noting that you didn't necessarily have to understand English to understand this production. … Music enhances and captures the emotional life of this production for me," she added.
She has also directed the play in the States. So far there has been no negative reaction to the idea of a musical about a concentration camp. "Audiences seemed to find the music fully furthered characterizations and the story line. Several of my Czech colleagues did mention that our presentation was different from their traditions of the use of music in productions, but I did not encounter what I would categorize as negative reactions at all," she said. "Actually, quite to the contrary. I will say that prior to the production in the U.S. there were questions about how would handle such a sensitive topic as a drama with music. Others have certainly pioneered the way for us with productions that ask pertinent questions of the audience through the musical motif," she said.
The play was first conceived by Virginia Criste, who in 2000 commissioned Peter Ullian to put the book together for the show. Shortly after that, composer Joel Derfner and lyricist Len Schiff came onboard. Developmental readings took place in 2003 at New York University.
Criste's grandparents spent their final years at Terezín. "After [Václav] Havel took power, I went to Terezín to research what happened to my paternal grandparents who were there. I found them on the last transport. The more I researched and looked at artifacts, the more fascinated I got with what had happened. It became a way of making their lives have more meaning and to enlighten [people] about the many ways in which mankind has been caught in captivity," she said.
Her ultimate ambition is to have the play performed at universities, special arts series at various locations around the U.S. and to see it travel abroad, especially in Europe. "I used this [musical] genre because it was the very genre used in the camp, I was very familiar with it, and I wanted a nonverbal emotional pull so people could feel the story, not just intellectualize it," she said. Many well-known composers and actors did stage shows in a makeshift theater while they were held in captivity in Terezín.
She does see further possibilities for the play. "I actually think it would have film potential, but I have no major connections in that field," she said.
For those who can't make it to Chicago, there is another opportunity to learn more about Terezín. The Jewish Museum in Prague and the National Film Archives will be presenting an exhibit called Truth and Lies, Filming in the Terezín Ghetto 1942-1945. It runs from Aug. 29 to Feb. 23, 2014, at the Robert Guttmann Gallery in Prague 1. The display shows many of the very sketches that Signs of Life discusses in its story, as well as photographs and sketches of the theatrical productions and clips of Nazi propaganda films.
The musical play in Chicago and the exhibit in Prague complement each other, unfortunately they are half a world apart.
Raymond Johnston can be reached at
Tags: Terezin, musical, Elton John, Grammy, Chicago.
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