In Europe, seeing the ministers and heads of state doing their song-and-dance routines over how best to resolve the long-running financial crisis might be commonplace, but for a brief engagement at a Berlin playhouse, that spectacle would at least offer real songs and actual dancing. "EuroCrash!," an English-language monetary unit musical, has arrived to do a send-up of the continent's currency. For the playwright, the Economist magazine's Berlin correspondent David Shirreff, it seemed a natural outlet for someone sitting on such a surfeit of fodder.
"I got rather frustrated writing the kind of stories everyone else was writing when I didn't think that the people trying to sort out the crisis always deserved serious coverage," says Shirreff, seated in the lobby of the Prime Time Theater, a 230-seat playhouse in Berlin's Wedding district, as the first wave of arrivals streams in. "There was something about them that lent themselves to ridicule."
Shirreff, who hails from London, had already penned a send-up of financial follies of his native land called "Broke Britannia!," performed in London and Edinburgh in 2010, so he and his composer, Russell Sarre, at the end of that year got to work on the mother of all monetary unions, the euro. "It was the next logical target," Shirreff says. "I've always been skeptical about the euro."
Thus was the saga of Mark and Gilda (get it?) born. Abandoned in the woods, they are ensnared by Papa Kohl and Madame Mitterrand into a diabolical currency school, but with the help of a whiskey-swilling Irish euroskeptic, a dour Greek named Stavros and cameos by a zloty, a lek and a dinar, well, actually, nothing is really resolved. Kind of like how it is in real life.
Having previously delighted the currency holdouts in the U.K., this would be the first time that the ticket prices would be denominated in the very unit being lampooned. "It's not anti-euro," Shirreff insists. "It's more like, 'This is the situation you're in; now what are you going to do about it?'"
After this three-night run, the troupe heads for the belly of the euro beast, Frankfurt, headquarters of the European Central Bank and the city where Shirreff was based from 2003 to '08. Shirreff says he tried to set up an engagement in Brussels, the seat of the European Commission and the EU's de facto capital, "but didn't get it organized in time." The play will then return to London for a final string of engagements. The Berlin show would be Shirreff's only opportunity to gauge the reaction of Eurozone residents.
"The British are basically indifferent to the troubles of the euro," he explains. "They just think, 'Thank God, I'm not part of it.' The audience we found here felt that what was going on onstage was what was going on in their lives."
The stage in question is spare with a single piano for accompaniment. The actors play double, triple and even quadruple roles with barely a costume change. One actress-dancer becomes the literal embodiment of the Snake, the nickname given an early arrangement whereby the European Economic Community in the 1970s tried to control intracontinental exchange rate fluctuations, PIIGS (an acronym for the economically teetering Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) try to fly and a trio called Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch rhapsodizes about how "our negative opinion can/Flush an economy right down the pan."
The audience appears to be taking it all in good fun, and even though purists might chafe at a refrain that rhymes "euro" with "poorer," this crowd was more likely to hold subscriptions to the Economist than to, say, a musical theater repertory company. Aside from a small contingent of expats and anglophiles hungry for any entertainment in English, the native Germans here seem to be heavy with professionals, graduate students and faculty, particularly in economics. Few, if any, needed to secretly consult the Wikipedia entry for, say, the Treaty of Maastricht on their smartphones to follow along.
"I think you have to be quite informed to get most of the jokes," says Moritz Hunger, a graduate student in European politics, who dragged a few of his friends to join him. "I really liked it, but no, ordinarily musical theater is not my thing."
Hunger regards himself as a euroskeptic, as does Gregor Rex, a self-described "IT nerd," who believes "we won't see the euro for much longer."
Alex Stomper, however, disagrees. "I have confidence in the euro," he declares. A professor at the Institute for Financial Economics at nearby Humboldt University, Stomper buttonholed Shirreff after the performance to amicably discuss the matter. "I think there was a clear U.K. perspective here," he says.
Tobias Berg, an assistant professor of finance at Humboldt (who arrived independently of Stomper), is also pro-euro but didn't really think its representation in the play warranted getting one's dander up. "It's nice if it touches the truth, but a musical like this will always exaggerate," he figures. "If you watch 'The Simpsons,' you might find out some things about the U.S., but it doesn't mean it's 100% like U.S. life."
And no problems with the stereotypically stuffy way his countrymen (and women) were portrayed? "Contrary to what you might understand," Berg replies, "we Germans are able to laugh at ourselves."