One would be forgiven, upon hearing the words “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” and “musical,” for cringing—or at least cocking an eyebrow.
But Haley Swindal, the non-Jewish granddaughter of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, is on a quest to bring Warsaw: A Musical Drama to Broadway audiences. The 28-year-old Broadway actress first encountered the show, written by William Wade with lyrics by John Atkins, when she was cast in it. The show had been performed in abbreviated form as a concert in synagogues, churches, and theaters, and on this past Tuesday, at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater as an industry concert Swindal hoped would showcase “how special this piece is and how special the story is of these heroes” to the New York theater community.
According to press materials, the play “tells the story of Roman, a passionate young Jewish man trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto and separated from his gentile fiancée, Ana. The couple struggle to reunite against overwhelming odds as Roman leads a group of young resistance fighters into an impossible battle to vindicate their community, their families, and their lives. Our cast pays homage to these heroes who took a courageous stand in the true spirit of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”).”
Swindal—who played Grace Farrell in Annie and has appeared on Broadway and on tour with Jekyll & Hyde and Jesus Christ Superstar—plays the part of Helena, one of the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in addition to formally producing the reading. “It’s really really an honor to get to play these heroes, and to be able to portray these characters,” she told me during the wine and cheese reception that followed the reading.
In retrospect, it seems almost impossible that no one has thought of this before. There were hints that such an endeavor would be a runaway hit, such as the reliable chills one gets during the final scene of Cabaret, when it’s revealed that all the debauched Weimer performers are headed straight for the gas chambers. Nevertheless, a full-on Les Miserables style love story buried in a struggle for freedom ensconced in a historical drama so epically divided by such absolute polarities of good and evil has yet to be devoted to the Holocaust.
Warsaw presents a Holocaust tailor-made for American audiences, with an interfaith romance, dramatic musical theater tropes, and a focus on heroics. These make for powerful theater, if a somewhat sketchy view of history. Partially due to the constraints of the musical as a genre, the show contrasts the heroes who fought with the victims who did not, whose passivity is characterized in their anthem—“We will be rescued, we will be saved, God would not lead us into the grave”. The opposition of heroic resistance to passive victimization is in line with the show’s Zionism—the State of Israel, too, was queasy about those who went “like sheep to the slaughter” (Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel is commemorated on the day of the uprising and is called “Yom Hashoa VeHagevurah”—the Day of the Holocaust and Heroism). Do the Jews who died without a struggle really need to be “vindicated” by the heroics of the resistance fighters? “Were we heroes or victims?” The ensemble sings. (Why, though, must it be a choice? That much is left unanswered…)
David Malcuso plays Herschel, one of the resistance fighters and one of the townspeople. “Unfortunately, in this version, I die twice,” he laughed. “I get sent away to a train, and then again I show up.” (Malcuso is not Jewish, but he is from Long Island—“so I might as well be.”) He says it’s very difficult playing such a tragic character, though it’s also very cathartic. “It’s such a beautiful story, just living it is difficult, but watching the strength and the power of these people is stunning.”
Lauren Lebowitz plays Rachel, one of the townspeople. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Her grandfather grew up right outside of Warsaw, so Lebowitz was familiar with the events of the Ghetto Uprising. “I’ve read every single book,” she said. “I’m pretty well versed.” Six weeks before the Nazis invaded, Lebowitz’s grandfather was in Warsaw having his tonsils taken out. “He always said that if it had happened six weeks later, he would have been in the hospital, and that would have been horrible, obviously,” Lebowitz said. Her grandfather died in December—but not before he got wind of his granddaughter’s latest gig. “He was just so proud of me, that I was combining my love for theater with a piece like this,” she said.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.