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Sign of the Times

Three Broadway revivals of classic shows are taking a darker, tougher view of Nazism.

March 08, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

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."

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