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Imagine This. The “Holocaust Musical”

November 16, 2008

Imagine This, showing at the New London Theatre

The title itself is almost a plea to envisage such a prospect. A West-End musical set in the Warsaw Ghetto, hundreds of thousands of Jews’ first stop on the way to the gas chambers. Go on, you can do it; just imagine; imagine the possibilities.

It’s far too easy to draw parallels with Mel Brooks’ masterpiece The Producers where two New York con men attempt to cheat theatre investors out of their investment by deliberately producing a tasteless flop – so I won’t. But a musical set in the most desperate of surroundings; opening as the credit crunch hits Theatreland hard; and in the same venue where the ill-fated production of Gone With the Wind received a critical mauling and early closure. Can they really be serious?

The problem for Imagine This, as I found when attending a preview on Thursday night, was the show’s seeming inability to stay serious. The first half was littered with what I can only assume were intended to be jokes. I got it: the makers were trying to show that Jews during the holocaust managed to find humour (and love – I’ll get on to that in a minute) in the worst of circumstances. The whole premise of the show depended on that. But timing and context are everything. With the characters making light-hearted quips a matter of seconds after taking a beating from SS soldiers, the “humour” was at best jarring. At worst, it was completely crass.

The show centred around a theatre group in the Warsaw Ghetto, putting on a play about the Jews of Masada who, in AD73, were surrounded by the Roman army and as an act of resistance chose to commit suicide rather than surrender.

The play within a play idea, drawing parallels between the plight of the Jews of Masada and of war-time Europe, seemed like a good basis for the story.

But as the show wore on, with a vast chunk of it dedicated to the Masada play, it seemed as if the makers had simply been unable to find enough entertainment from a concept set in the Warsaw Ghetto, and so decided, “let’s do it on the Romans instead”.

The incongruence between the two made it difficult to keep in mind that it was actually meant to be the Warsaw Ghetto Jews who were putting on this Masada production. So yes, in the midst of the horror, we were meant to believe that they would be performing a spot of belly dancing. Oh, and a Roman orgy, expressed through the power of dance.

Indeed for a lot of the show, I felt as though I was in the same boat as the show’s writers – I had completely lost the plot.

In her article, the Guardian’s Tanya Gold was preoccupied with whether the Nazis would sing. Thankfully, we were relieved of that joy, but really that should have been the last of the producers’ worries.


Part of a publicity blitz around the capital

I have to say, I am really reluctant to be scathing about this production. As the producers are keen to point out, Imagine This should be in excellent company. From Cabaret to The Sound of Music, Miss Saigon to Les Mis, musicals have often derived inspiration from the darkest of histories. With some subtlety, intelligence and genuine wit, it really could have been different. And I really wanted it to work. Indeed, I had nothing against the show in theory; it was the musical in practice that disappointed.

Seeing as the show was so desperate to veer towards optimism, on the positive side: the set and staging were stunning. The performances were wonderful (particularly the creditable central lead, Peter Polycarpou)  and the music on the whole was also worth the ticket price. The soaring title song especially, is potentially up with the best of them.

But with such powerful, visceral subject matter, it promised so much more. The fact that in the latter half, when it got serious, it got good, made it all the more disheartening that the rest of the show was so trivial and silly.

As the conclusion brought together the parallels between Masada and the situation that the characters found themselves in, and even touched on some kind of intellectual dilemma as the characters faced the option of potentially saving themselves, or warning the “audience” of their impending fate, I thought maybe I’d got it all wrong.

Peter Polycarpou takes the lead

But the irritating, saccharine finish ended up making the rest of the show look subtle, nuanced and profound in comparison. While the West End’s current production of Cabaret ends on a truly terrifying note, Imagine This’ producers couldn’t find the courage or conviction to end on anything but a cheesy Hollywood finale. The majority of the cast had just been shot (off-stage) and yet the makers couldn’t resist bringing them on to sing a smiling encore of the title song, donning the crisp, colourful outfits that they had worn at the beginning of the show – as the two lovers ran off into the audience. It was as if none of it (the musical, or the murder) had ever happened.

Historian Tim Cole (one of my tutors at Bristol) makes an excellent point in his excellent book “Selling the Holocaust”, about artistic productions’ tendency to focus on the survivors. In an effort not to wade through unyielding hopelessness, and to finish, at least, on a note of redemption, most portrayals zone in on the survivors, hoping for a kind of happy-ever-after message.

But, as Cole points out (in the words of Michael Kress): “emphasizing survivors, however horrific and heartbreaking their stories may be, falls short of the wrenching truth that surviving was the exception, destruction the rule.”

It all pointed to the central tearing dilemma – of trying to produce a piece of entertainment out of the holocaust, without trivialising the subject matter in the process.

Norman Lebrecht concludes that “Imagine This amounts to failure of imagination – an inability to tell a story in its own terms without exploiting the Holocaust as theatrical cliché.”

All of that said, analysing Imagine This from a historical or academic perspective is frankly ridiculous. Despite noises from Beth Trachtenburg referring to the “intellectual excitement” of Imagine This. I’d go so far as saying that the show is close to verging on being intellectually bankrupt. I can only hope that the production isn’t going to leave the investors bankrupt as well.

It is entirely possible that I’m just over-analysing it as a (former) history student, journalist, or maybe, just as a grandson of those that escaped the Nazis. It’s more than possible that many will enjoy an evening of entertainment, with some education and history thrown into the £50 or £60 bargain.

You never know, it could end up being a runaway success. In which case, the parallels with The Producers, may be even more eye-wateringly obvious than it first seemed. Imagine that.

– Imagine This opens at the New London Theatre on November 19. Box office: 0844 412 4654.

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