Holocaust comedy is fine, it's kitsch we should worry about
Art should enable us to deal with difficult questions in imaginative ways, not supply easy answers.
On a Saturday evening four weeks ago I found myself sitting in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. Literally. I had bought one of the cheapest tickets for a preview show of the new West End musical and was about to take my seat in the outer reaches of the stalls, when it turned out that not enough tickets had been sold and I was relocated.
Suddenly I was touching a broken piece of masonry from the Ghetto wall and seeing the whites in the eyes of the SS officer.
But despite the effectiveness of the scenery, there any semblance of authenticity quickly died away as this was the musical Imagine This!, a five million Pound West End production depicting the tragic story of the Warshowsky Family theater group who defy the oppressors and the ghetto's meagre resources to put on a musical on the siege of Masada and warn their audience of the fate awaiting them in Treblinka. The cheesy songs and predictable jokes and story lines quickly reminded me that I was sitting in London's theaterland and had not been transported back to 1943 Poland.
The production was a dud
The empty stalls were no coincidence; quite obviously I wasn't the only one with the impression that this production was a dud, and this week it was announced that Imagine This! will close on December 20, only a month after its official opening at the Drury Lane New London Theatre.
During the show's short run, and now that it is abruptly closing, there have been attempts to portray it as "controversial."
I don't know if the musical's producers and writers, most of them American Jews, were looking to cause a public furor with the massive PR and media campaign that emphasized that 'This Is a Musical About the HOLOCAUST,' but if they were looking for an enraged response, they certainly didn't get that.
From what I've heard, many London Jews flocked to the theater (though obviously not enough to save the box office returns) and nary a bad word was heard from them.
Where it did cause ire was with some of the critics, who mercilessly panned the musical. The Evening Standard's Norman Lebrecht summed it up best by writing that "Imagine This! amounts to failure of imagination - an inability to tell a story in its own terms without exploiting the Holocaust as theatrical kitsch."
Since I am not a theater critic, I will simply say that Lebrecht's verdict accurately described my personal feelings when walking out onto the frozen streets of London.
Producer Beth Trachtenberg, though, didn't get this point and in an interview following the closure announcement blamed the critics for damning the production and accused them of having "a narrow-minded critical belief that musicals are limited in their emotional impact and ability to deal with meaningful subject matter in a powerful and sensitive manner".
Trachtenberg said that unlike the critics, the public's response to Imagine This! had been warm, though that hardly explains why they hadn't bought enough tickets.
I would be wary of explaining the failure of Imagine This! simply due to its dark subject matter, first because it is merely the latest in a string of high-profile West End productions to bomb after only a few weeks.
But also because we have seen, so many times over recent years, how the millions of threads that make up the story of the Holocaust can, and should, be woven into every possible literary and art form, including comedy, especially comedy, lest anyone say that along with six million Jews, the Germans succeeded in also murdering the Jewish sense of humor. And not to be afraid of controversy, because the lessons of the Holocaust are not only contemporary, but also contradictory.
Yehoshua Soboll's play, Ghetto, in 1983 was also about a group of actors continuing their work in the Vilinius Ghetto, but managed to deal with the dilemnas of the face of evil, collaboration and art and death without descending into kitsch and cliche.
Doing the subject justice
None of this means that the Holocaust can't be addressed in a more light-hearted form of a musical and even kitsch is a legitimate style, but the creators should at least have the grace to do justice with their subject.
The makers of Imagine This! failed twice. They failed to come up with the breathtaking songs and lyrics that make a truly iconic musical and they assumed that merely by being brave enough to make a song and dance out of the Holocaust they would have a runaway success on their hands. Behind the impressing facade of scenery and costumes, there was a shallow and over-simplified message.
London theater-goers are no fools. That this musical was produced and, it seems, appreciated mainly by Jews is dispiriting.
We all have an urge sometimes to oversimplify tragedy, especially one of such magnitude; the question marks it raises are just too unbearable. Art should enable us to deal with these questions in imaginative ways, not indulge our need for easy answers.