Sign of the Times

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

To Brigitta, a young child in "The Sound of Music," it's "the flag with the spider on it."

To Sally Bowles in "Cabaret," it's the banner of "some political party."

To the families in "The Diary of Anne Frank," it's the signal of their doom.

With all its various connotations, the Nazi swastika will be flying over Broadway in these three revivals this season, raising questions about present-day attitudes toward the Third Reich more than 50 years after the regime lay smoldering in ruins in a bombed-out Berlin.

"Diary of Anne Frank," first adapted for the stage in 1955 by screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is running now at the Music Box Theatre. Its new adaptation by Wendy Kesselman, directed by James Lapine, brings a harsher, more astringent sensibility to the Holocaust classic. On Thursday, the 60th anniversary of the German entry into Salzburg, a revival of "The Sound of Music," the 1959 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that hangs on that event, opens at the Martin Beck Theatre in a production projected to be darker and more graphically explicit than its original production. And on March 19, an in-your-face revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Cabaret" opens at the Kit Kat Klub, a onetime dive on West 43rd Street that has been redesigned to simulate the waning, depraved Weimar Republic setting of the musical that shocked audiences when it opened in 1966.

" 'Cabaret' is really about the central mystery of the 20th century, how Hitler could have happened," says Sam Mendes, who, as the show's director, is remounting the critically acclaimed 1994 London revival of the Kander & Ebb musical with co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall. "It's important that we go on asking the questions, whether or not we can find some sort of answer."

"I think there must be a renewed consciousness of past mistakes or we are, as they say, doomed to repeat them," says Susan Schulman, director of the revival of "The Sound of Music." "The thing about Nazi Germany is that it brought out the best and the worst in people, and today there are echoes of it, not just of neo-Nazis and skinheads, but also of wars of racial purity."

Indeed, seen in sequence, these three new productions explore the ominous progression of the Nazi presence--the gathering storm in "Cabaret," set in 1929-30 Berlin; the Nazi invasion in "The Sound of Music," set in Austria in 1938; and then the full brunt of the regime's brutality in "Anne Frank," set in Amsterdam in 1942-1944.

Of course, the historical and moral implications of these events are vastly more complex than any of these three shows can explore, particularly as "artistic license" often is taken with the facts. As Schulman puts it: "There is truth and there is theatrical adaptation." But while the stories--and, in the case of the two musicals, the scores--of these three classics continue to have great drawing power, Broadway audiences have changed in their expectations and sensibilities since these shows first appeared. As a result, each of the creative teams has adapted the works to show more of the dark realities of World War II.

Writer Wendy Kesselman says that the basis for her revisions of "Diary of Anne Frank" came from a trip she took with Lapine to Amsterdam to the site of Westerbork transit camp, the intermediate destination for Jews being sent to concentration camps in the east. It is where Anne Frank and her family were taken when they were apprehended by the Gestapo after hiding for two years in a secret annex with another family, the Van Daans, and Alfred Dussel, a dentist who joined them months later. Only Otto Frank, the patriarch of the family, survived, returning to Amsterdam to find in the annex his daughter's diary chronicling the extraordinary experience. An edited version of the diary became an international bestseller in 1947 and was the basis for the 1955 play by Goodrich and Hackett. Kesselman and Lapine, however, sought out the complete diary and included some of Anne's previously deleted entries pertaining to her sexuality and teenage rebellion.

"The trip to Holland was a shock in itself," says Kesselman. "There is a sense that the Dutch did everything they could against the Nazis, and yet the highest percentage of Jews were murdered in Holland. They had, to paraphrase Adolf Eichmann, the best trains. What I wanted to do [in the revision] was to convey this sense of what was happening outside of the annex. That had not been captured in the original play."

The outside emerges early on in Kesselman's revisions, not only in the sound effects of barking dogs and a chilling voice-over of Hitler's rantings at the beginning of the play, but also in Dussel's stories of Jews being rounded up in the streets and entire families vanishing, which he recounts to the Franks and Van Daans upon his arrival at the annex. There are, as well, BBC radio broadcasts heard by the family, which tell of the gassings of Jews--prompting Anne to call the Germans "the cruelest monsters to ever walk the Earth." None of these references was included in the original play, in part from a fear that they might alienate audiences. Such deletions brought harsh criticisms of the play, most notably from novelist Cynthia Ozick, who attacked it in a recent New Yorker article as a "subversion of history" that "falsified, kitschified and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied" the diary.

"It was very much a work of its time," says Kesselman of the original production, which appeared just a decade after the end of the war revealed the extent of Nazi atrocities. "The producers originally removed a lot because they thought the audiences wouldn't be able to take it. It was too dark."

Even outside the Broadway arena, says Kesselman, there appeared to be a tacit conspiracy of silence, among witnesses and non-witnesses alike. Indeed, the idea that Nazi Germany was simply an aberration held a lot of quarter. "No one wanted to hear about the gassings," Kesselman says. "Many of the survivors wanted to speak, but they were not listened to. It was too horrific, too bleak, too disturbing."

Kesselman says that her most crucial revisions place in context Anne Frank's famous line, which is the signature of both the diary and the play: "I still believe," she wrote, "in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." Ozick, among others, argued that its use as the final coda of the original play was a travesty; that Anne's sentiment would never have survived the girl's brutal experience at Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where she died of typhus just months before liberation. Today, the play ends with a description of her fate.

Still ominous, but in a very different vein, the Nazi insignia makes its appearance fairly early in Rodgers & Hammerstein's beloved and sugary musical about Maria, the novice and nanny who falls in love with a family of children and their autocratic father, an Austrian captain and nationalist who despises the Germans as an invading force. Singing the sweetly innocent tune of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" are Liesl, the eldest child, and her young suitor, Rolf, the bicycle messenger whose uniform menacingly sports a Nazi armband. While the revival stays close to the original book, director Susan Schulman says that she chose to emphasize in graphic terms the grim political realities. This becomes most evident in a second-act musical-festival scene in which the concert hall is draped with huge banners of the Third Reich--images that were not in the original but which have been done in subsequent non-Broadway productions.

"Like most things in the 1950s, Broadway musicals weren't interested in a sense of historical accuracy. Even the film of 'The Sound of Music' wasn't really entrenched in 1938," says Schulman who, like Kesselman, was inspired by a visit to the setting depicted in the stage work.

"Musicals that dealt with tough subject matter didn't deal with it in a complex way. We're not deconstructing 'The Sound of Music.' We're treating it like some old friend, but we do hope to bring enough history to it so that people discover some things they didn't know about the show."

Schulman says the outsize red-and-black Nazi flags echo newsreel footage she studied of both the Anschluss and the Salzburg Festival of the time, in which whole buildings were draped with the insignia.

"It was pretty intimidating," she says, adding that the streets were lined with Austrians cheering the German troops as they marched in to annex Austria. The collusion is also demonstrated in a song, "No Way to Stop It"--cut from the movie--in which the baron's fiancee, Elsa, and family friend, Max, urge the defiant captain "to bend a little" to the forbidding power of Nazi Germany.

Schulman admits that, in hindsight, one can omnisciently see the perils of such compromise, but it is important to convey that at the time, for some Austrians, the new German Reich represented simply "a new economic model." Her focus, she says, was that the Germans' political message was attractive to many because it provided easy answers to complex problems. It is a lesson that has resonance today, she believes.

"The Nazi presence in 'The Sound of Music' is Rolf," says Schulman. "He buys into something that he really doesn't understand; he's mouthing the party line, the costs of which he doesn't realize until it happens, that it is endangering the people he most cares about."

In "Cabaret," Nazis take on more ambiguous and complex colors than in either of the other two revivals. Joe Masteroff wrote the book for the musical, basing it on John Van Druten's 1952 play "I Am a Camera," which in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories." Masteroff remembers that when the musical bowed in 1966, it stunned Broadway audiences with its adventures of the divinely decadent Sally Bowles and her drug-taking, sex-starved friends of Weimar Germany.

"The fact that there could be a musical about Nazis and abortions that ended unhappily was a real shocker then," says the writer. "But when it was revived on Broadway by Hal Prince in 1986, it seemed pallid. Now [director] Sam [Mendes] has made it shocking again. It's certainly more outspoken. The characters are more what they are than they have ever been before."

Among those characters is Ernst, whom Sally describes as someone who is transporting money from Paris for "some political party." He is such an amiable and decent fellow that it comes as a surprise when he doffs his coat to reveal a Nazi armband at the end of Act 1, at an engagement party between the widow Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit merchant.

"I've seen some productions in which Ernst is played as a real meanie and that's a terrible mistake," says Masteroff. "The point is that he's just a nice guy who happens to be Nazi. I'd like to think that Ernst might not have liked what the party eventually became."

Masteroff adds that, in 1966, many people were not capable of seeing irony in the events of World War II and the Holocaust. As examples of this, he cites two major accommodations that were made: The musical had to change its title--it originally was called "Welcome to Berlin," but succumbed when Jewish groups protested the name as being in bad taste. It also changed the final line of a crucial parody of a love song sung by the emcee to a gorilla, "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes," which was intended to convey the rampant anti-Semitism in the Weimar Republic. Originally it ended with the line "she wouldn't look Jewish at all," but faced with an outcry during previews, it was changed to "she isn't a meeskite at all" (using a Yiddish term meaning ugly). The line was restored in the Bob Fosse film of "Cabaret," as well as in many subsequent productions, including this revival.

Passions still were running high in 1966, says Masteroff. "There was enormous anti-German feeling at the time and a sense that all Germans were equally guilty for the Holocaust and the rise of Hitler. But we tried to say that sometimes people are swept up in things that they can't do very much about."

The playwright believes that people's attitudes may have been softened somewhat by the American experience of the Vietnam War, which so many Americans hated but felt powerless to change.

"There were protests," says Masteroff, "but you weren't going to be shot for doing so, which is what happened in Nazi Germany."

At the same time, "Cabaret" condemns in no uncertain terms Sally's defense of being apolitical. There is definitely a sense that political compromise and blindness leads to disastrous consequences. But there is also an empathy for the limited choices available to the characters in "Cabaret," particularly for the widow Fraulein Schneider, who wakes up to find that all her neighbors and friends, those nice, ordinary Germans, are members of the Nazi Party. With Communists marching in the streets in equal numbers, it is difficult, she tells the protagonists, to know what to do. In the song "What Would You Do?," Schneider challenges the audience to put themselves in her place.

In this revival of "Cabaret," it is a particularly easy challenge to accept. After all, rather than sitting in a proscenium theater, the audience is placed at tables in the Kit Kat Klub, the setting for the musical. Theatergoers are, in effect, transposed into Germans out on the town for the night. The effect is not only an atmospheric, up-close-and-personal interchange with the performers, it also transposes the audience into participants.

This kind of directorial touch is shared to some extent by all three productions: Because the set of "Diary of Anne Frank" exactly duplicates the dimensions of the families' hiding place, it makes real the claustrophobia and terror of their experience. In "Sound of Music," when the doors are locked at the Salzburg Festival to keep the Von Trapp family from escaping, there is a feeling of actually being in that theater. And, of course, "Cabaret" lures its audience into an evening of "divine decadence," only to make everyone co-conspirators.

Where once shows about the Nazi era invited us to identify primarily with the victims of Nazism, today's shows suggest we should also consider what it was like to be a part of that time, on either side. It is unsettling, but then, that is just the point.

"What you would do?" Indeed.

* "The Diary of Anne Frank," Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York. (800) 432-7250.

* "The Sound of Music" opens Thursday at the Martin Beck Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., New York. (800) 432-7250.

* "Cabaret" opens March 19 at the Kit Kat Klub, 124 W. 43rd St., New York. (800) 432-7250.

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