Madrid musical treats Anne Frank seriously
Presenting, “Anne Frank, the Musical.”
Now, before you start humming “Springtime for Hitler,” the producers of a new Anne Frank musical here want you to know that they are serious. They are offering a rendition of the popular, tragic story of a Jewish girl and her diary during the Holocaust that they say is respectful, inspirational and educational.
And -- surprise! -- controversial.
Even before the premiere last week, uneasy voices were raised about whether committing such a heart-wrenching tale to music was a good idea. Octogenarian Buddy Elias, one of Anne Frank’s last surviving relatives and head of a Swiss-based foundation that controls rights to the diary, protested the project.
The suffering of the Holocaust was not an appropriate subject for entertainment he said in several statements to the media.
But the writers, actors and director behind the Spanish-language, $4.5-million production of “The Diary of Anne Frank: A Song to Life” (“El Diario de Ana Frank: Un Canto a la Vida”) have worked hard to dispel any notion of trivialization or irreverence.
“This is one more way to talk about the Holocaust, to remind people of something they must know about and remember,” executive director Rafael Alvero said in an interview. The message is especially urgent in these “scrambled times” of xenophobia and intolerance, he said.
Alvero, a veteran of Spanish theater and cinema production, including a dramatization of the works of slain poet Federico Garcia Lorca, said he got the idea for “A Song to Life” when he visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the museum that enshrines the canal-front building where the Frank family hid from the Nazis for two years.
Anne, her parents and her sister, Margot, were eventually betrayed and taken to Nazi camps. Anne died of typhus at the in 1945 at the age of 15. The diary she kept while in hiding is one of the most-read accounts of the Holocaust and has been made into a (nonmusical) play and movie.
On his visit to the Frank house, Alvero had in tow his own 13-year-old child, and he came to understand the complexity of the story, he said. There was something universal, he concluded, about the flights of fantasy and spurts of rebellion of a young girl, even when juxtaposed with some of the most terrible passages of human history. He eventually approached the Anne Frank foundation that controls the Amsterdam museum, which is a separate organization from that led by Buddy Elias, and pitched the idea for a musical.
That visit was in 1998; it took a decade for Alvero to persuade the foundation to agree to the project.
“There was skepticism at first,” he said. “There was a belief that this kind of entertainment was lightweight. I convinced them that it didn’t have to be that way.”
He pointed to other musical adaptations with serious themes, including “Cabaret” and “Miss Saigon,” as examples.
Once on board, Alvero said, the foundation became an ad hoc sounding board and has been asked to approve the script and other details of the production.
“They did not have to set out guidelines,” Alvero said. “I knew from the first moment that there had to be a rigorous respect for the material.”
Because the script does not quote directly from the diary, there were no copyright issues and no way for any objectors, such as Elias, to take legal action to stop the show.
Journalists were given a preview of the production. It may be jarring to see a group of people you know are doomed, wearing large yellow stars on their chests, merrily singing “Happy Birthday” to Anne. But overall, the script and music do not seem overly incongruous and certainly not offensive.
If anything, the play is uneven. In portions it is moving and dramatic; at other times, it drags. Or, as critic Leopoldo Alas, writing in Spain’s El Mundo newspaper, put it: The play “has achieved a balanced dignity, in exchange for a certain, inevitable monotony.”
Most of the drama takes place in a two-story cubicle representation of the secret annex where the Franks hid along with another couple and their son, who eventually became Anne’s love interest. In this version, “Kitty,” the imaginary confidant whom Anne writes to in her diary, becomes a fairy-godmother-type character who chats and sings as Anne recounts her girlish thoughts or complains about her parents, as any teen would.
The characters chafe at their confinement and despair for their survival. A neighbor occasionally brings them food. Every so often Nazi soldiers in jackboots march noisily across the stage to remind the audience of the historical context. One soldier guides a large German shepherd tethered by a leather leash for added menace.
The songs, primarily by Jose Luis Tierno, hit and miss. Especially memorable is Anne’s belting-out of a piece called “Radio Querida” (“Dear Radio”), which speaks of the lifeline that an old radio is for the trapped families:
Dear radio, voice of hope.
Today your sound makes me tremble.
Your voice alone shortens the distance
Of the dream of being free that you cause to be reborn.
I always say what I feel; this is the custom I want to maintain.
I am tired of being enclosed,
I would like to be a sea gull, to fly away and not return. . . .
And to feel I will never die.
The role of Anne is played by a Cuban-born girl from Miami, Isabella Castillo, soon to be 14. Her voice is powerful and passionate. Castillo won the part over 150 girls who auditioned, that group having been culled from a much larger one of hundreds drawn by an Internet search.
The first half of the play, under the direction of Daniel Garcia Chavez, takes a long time to establish the stifling claustrophobia of the families’ confinement. The second act picks up the pace and ratchets up the intensity through the discovery and deportation of the Franks.
Performances of “A Song to Life” are scheduled to run at Madrid’s Haagen-Dazs Calderon theater for the next year. Free matinees have been booked for school groups, Alvero said. And special previews for local Jewish groups have won praise, he said.
Casa Sefarad, a Jewish cultural institution in Madrid, is promoting the play on its website, a sign of approval.
If the play is successful, Alvero said, he hopes to take it on the road, to other parts of Europe and Latin America, and possibly the United States.