New musical takes on art and resistance during the Holocaust
By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – A group of teens is preparing a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Nothing unusual about that, except that it is set in a fictional Concentration Camp called Freileben in April 1945.
This is the setting of “Prospero’s Island,” a new musical by West Hartford resident Alan Kramer that premiered at the Watkinson School in Hartford earlier this month. The plot centers around the final dress rehearsal of the show that the teens plan to put on the following day for visiting Nazi dignitaries. As the rehearsal proceeds, both the teens and the Nazi system face threats from within the camp and from outside.
Kramer, a lifelong educator, composer, and playwright, has been honing the work for nearly 30 years. The dean of magnet schools at Goodwin College in East Hartford, he is also a member of the Dramatists Guild. His plays and musicals have been presented in New York and Connecticut, including in workshop at the York Theater Company, Musical Theater Works, ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop, Stamford Center for the Arts, and Shakesperience Productions in Waterbury. His poems have been published in Israel and by Goodwin College.
Kramer made aliyah with his wife and two sons in 1979 from New Jersey. He lived in Jerusalem for five years, serving as director of university and municipal enrichment programs and acting national director of the Department for Gifted Children in the Israeli Ministry of Education and Culture. He returned to the U.S. in 1984.
A graduate of Trinity College, with a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Kramer’s first original musical compositions were protest songs during the ‘60s. He continued to compose music while working as an educator and principal in Philadelphia-area schools.
“After a while, I got bored writing songs and wanted to create something more coherent,” he says. He began writing a “musicalization” of “The Tempest,” then decided to infuse the project with his scholarly interest in World War II.
“As a history major, I had always rejected the characterization of people in the concentration camps being dead from the minute they walked in,” he says. “They were still very much alive, and some even created art and music and writing.”
Kramer set his story in a concentration camp. He aroused some interest on Broadway but could never finish the project. “It became so dark,” he says. “Everyone knows the fate of most people in the camps; the story could only end in death.” He put the script away.
Five years ago, Kramer suddenly had a new idea: if he set the play in April 1945, just before liberation, the characters wouldn’t have to die. He rewrote the plot and added new music, then faced a fresh set of hurdles: musical theater is only produced on Broadway and in schools. Who would stage a work that required a large adult cast?
Kramer again re-imagined the story, drawing from the real-life model of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where a production of the children’s opera “Brundibar” was staged during the war. He rewrote the plot around a group of teen inmates putting together a production of “The Tempest” just before liberation.
Earlier this year, Kramer was referred by Holocaust survivors Rabbi Philip and Ruth Lazowski of Bloomfield, to the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT) and its “Voices of Hope” Holocaust-education program. He offered his musical to JFACT as a gift to the community. JFACT connected Kramer with Karen Bovard, director of creative arts at the Watkinson School in Hartford, where a Shakespeare play is staged every third year.
“Though I hadn’t planned on doing a musical, ‘Prospero’s Island’ was by far the best of the scripts I considered this year,” she says. “The way it layers really important ideas from Shakespeare’s text together with similar issues from the Holocaust – ideas about illegitimate power and about freedom – had great appeal. We live in a time when the ranks of Holocaust survivors are dwindling, so it is particularly important now to find compelling ways to continue to tell the story of what happened, lest we forget.”
Bovard was also drawn to the idea of mounting a premiere at the school. “It gave the cast and me the opportunity to participate in the real work of the world,” she says. “We came together around a worthwhile project, linked our efforts, and stepped forward into uncertainty together, gradually developing a reality that had never before existed. For me, this is a microcosmic model of how important problems will be solved, like curing cancer or establishing peace in the Middle East. Students should be practicing these skills in school, so they’ll be ready to take up the world’s work when they graduate.”
The student cast watched video testimonials from the Voices of Hope archive, and met with West Hartford resident Ruth Fishman, a survivor of Theresienstadt. The 75-minute play debuted on Nov. 9, sponsored by JFACT, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Watkinson School.
“Alan asked the actors each to give ‘one true moment’ and this was a charge they took seriously,” Bovard says. “They also know that they were the first cast ever to mount this show, and that in so doing they gave Alan a gift and made a mark on history, in some small way.”
Kramer says that he didn’t want to create another “Annie” or “Guys and Dolls,” but rather what he describes as “a cross between ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
“The kids are in a concentration camp and think they’re going to die; they don’t know that they’re going to be liberated,” he says. “I was trying to create an intense kind of edge, with a full concept of life and joy that emerges at the end.”
Kramer hopes to use “Prospero’s Island” as a fundraiser for Voices of Hope in the spring, and make the production available to schools and Jewish communities throughout the country.
“At this stage of my life and career, I’m much more interested in sharing than going to Broadway and winning Tonys,” he says. “I want to get this material out there and make an impact on people.”
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