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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

This is one musical too far

By Norman Lebrecht / November 5, 2008

Apart from opening a savings account in Reykjavik, there are few more light-hearted ways of losing your money at the moment than launching a new musical in the West End, where shows are closing like sunflowers at twilight.

And when I add, by way of full disclosure, that the latest extravaganza has no box-office stars, no pedigree writer, no show doctor – nothing, in fact, beyond one man’s faith in its importance– it does start to look as if this is $9 million dollars heading down the same drain as Trevor Nunn’s Gone With the Wind, which was the last short occupant of the New London Theatre, Drury Lane.

Imagine This!, a shaft of happiness from the Warsaw Ghetto, has been all over the sides of London buses for a month and goes into pre-run this week. The story, about a family of actors in the Warsaw Ghetto who put on a play about the Jewish resistance against the Romans at Masada in 66 AD, could hardly be grimmer. That there was a theatre in the Ghetto is historical fact; the rest, as the title implies, is imaginary. The reason for inventing it, says its composer, is to demonstrate the continuity of evil and ‘stop the world repeating the mistakes of the past’.

A first-time stage composer, Shuki Levi is no dewy-eyed innocent in the business of music. He is the creative force behind the TV children’s serial Power Rangers and the former partner of billionaire media owner, Haim Saban. In Hollywood, he ranks with the likes of Quincy Jones and John Williams as musical royalty. But, living up in the hills above tinseltown, Levi found himself drawn back to distant boyhood memories.

Aged 11, the son of a Ramat Gan barber, he was taken with his class to Masada, a desert fortress where doomed Jewish zealots committed mass suicide rather than submit to Roman slavery. Masada, excavated by the Israeli general Yigael Yadin and propagated as a proto-Zionist metaphor, is taken none too seriously by visiting school parties. Shuki, alone among his class, burst into tears at the ruins. ‘I knew there was more to Masada than a bunch of Jews that killed themselves,’ he says. Last year he created a $2 million multimedia museum at the site, while continuing to work on a musical realisation of its story.

Dropping out of school at 16, he sang in clubs, formed a trio called Chocolate and got a part in the Tel Aviv production of Hair. With a fellow cast-member Aviva Paz, he formed Shuki and Aviva, an Ofarim lookalike duo that scored million-selling hits in France, Germany and Japan with songs of irreproachable banality. Haim Saban, an old friend from school, turned up in Paris after losing all his money on importing a Russian circus to Israel just before the Yom Kippur War. ‘I made him our manager,’ says Levi, ‘he was good at business and spoke fluent French’

Disenchanted with Aviva, who went back to Israel, Levi fell in love with a Playboy cover girl and followed her in 1980 to Los Angeles, where he wrote a score for a cartoon series, Inspector Gadget. ‘Saban joined me in LA and we became a factory for cartoon music,’ he recalls. ‘I wrote over 150 theme songs. Then we decided to produce our own show, Power Rangers, modelled on something we had seen in Japan. We walked around with the pilot for five years before a new network, Fox, took it up. It’s still running now, after 15 years.’

When Saban sold their company to Walt Disney for $1.6 billion (he has since bought the German Kirch group), Levi split away ‘to get involved with projects of the heart.’ He composed a sountrack called Masada, recorded it with a symphony orchestra in Moscow and released the album in Israel. An American producer, Beth Trachtenberg, picked up a copy at Ben Gurion Airport and liked it enough to put together a team for a musical. Writer Glenn Berenbeim introduced the Warsaw Ghetto dimension.

‘I was uncomfortable with that at first,’ says Levi, shifting perceptibly in his seat as we speak in a Bloomsbury street cafe. ‘I wanted to write the Masada story but everyone said we needed to bring it up to modern times. But then the more I thought about it, the more parallels I saw between the Romans and the Nazis. It could have happened this way.’

Could it? The similarities are unconvincing and Levi, jetlagged from a red-eye flight, is in no condition to expound. We have reached the sticky part, the bit where creative imagination comes up against documented atrocity and the means of expression must match the gravity of the situation if the work is to have any credibility, whether as art or as history. Putting the Holocaust on stage is fraught with risks of moral trespass and want of verisimilitude.

From what I saw and heard in half-an-hour of a morning’s rehearsal and four tracks of an Imagine This! show-reel, the gulf between intent and actuality is oceanic. The dialogue clicks along like a TV soap - ‘Why didn’t you kill the general?’ ‘He’s a good man, he saved Aron’ – and the music reflects the chart norms of the last recession but two. If you can imagine that emaciated Jews in Warsaw, victims of a terror that will end in deportation and death, can take the stage singing about ‘an evening at the ball, a crystal chandelier/or Paris in the fall, or living with no fear’, then you are probably the ideal audience for a musical which Levi believes ‘will be huge, all over the world.’

Without pre-empting the first-night reviews, there are conceptual aspects of Imagine This! that disturb me. It is one thing to stage a musical in Madrid this year about Anne Frank, based on authentic documents and respectful of her fate, but quite another to attach the Warsaw Ghetto tragedy as frontage to a different story. Roman Polanski, when he rebuilt the Ghetto in his film of Wladislaw Szpilman’s memoir The Pianist, did so with replicas drawn from boyhood memory. Shuki Levi, when he talks about Warsaw, is concerned chiefly with its relevance as storyboard to his own unrelated obsession. Imagine This! amounts to failure of imagination – an inability to tell a story in its own terms without exploiting the Holocaust as theatrical cliché.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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