It may surprise some of you to learn this, but the theater periodically sees an attempt at the most unlikely marriage of medium and subject matter possible…a musical about the Holocaust. If you’re wondering, it’s only come close to working once, with Elizabeth Swados’ A Nightclub Cantata, and that’s probably because Swados specialized almost entirely in incongruously heavy subject matter for musicals, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for her. But it’s never really worked for anyone else, and it certainly doesn’t work here.
Half the show concerns a Yiddish theater troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland, while the other half takes place in modern times as the daughter of one of those performers agonizes over whether to put her mother in a nursing home. The show features all the hot-button emotional issues that go with these subjects, but it ultimately amounts to nothing more than a sentimental, melodramatic potboiler.
The reason for this becomes obvious when you check the writing credits—Iris Rainer Dart, author of the source material for Beaches, wrote the book and lyrics. Indeed, this is basically Beaches II: This Time It’s About the Holocaust. It even boasts a star who could hold her own with Bette Midler any day in the great Donna Murphy, here showing off both the brassy comedic muscle she showed in Wonderful Town and the haunting sadness she displayed in Passion.
What this show doesn’t have is the score of Beaches. There is one fine tearjerker ballad, “Selective Memory” (which, to be perfectly honest, is a lot better than “Wind Beneath My Wings” will ever be), but otherwise the score is pretty dreadful, and even Donna Murphy can only do so much with it. The present-day story is largely told in lifeless, cliche-ridden ballads like “Saying Goodbye” and “Child of my Child” and intensely unpleasant confrontation numbers like the three-generation screaming match “For This”.
Meanwhile, the period flashbacks are mostly unfunny Yiddish-flavored comedy numbers. Now, Jewish folk sounds have a treasured legacy in musical theater from Fiddler on the Roof to Ragtime, and Yiddish-style comedy has been with the musical since its inception and provided some of its most shining moments (look at Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, for one!) But here, for some reason, the tunes all sound like perfunctory echoes of other scores in this vein like Rags, and the jokes in the lyrics are painfully hackneyed and lame. Like The Glorious Ones, this show is supposed to be a celebration of the revitalizing power of humor in hard times, and the fact that it’s hard to imagine someone laughing at these jokes at any time kind of undercuts that.
With a score to match that of Beaches, this show might have had a similar appeal on the same grounds and to the same demographic. But without effective music to lighten the material, the dreary score makes this extremely sad story seem more depressing than touching. And even if it could have fielded a score of that quality, one could argue that the subject matter is simply inappropriate for this kind of story. It’s probably best to leave the Holocaust stories to projects with more ambition than this, and unless you’re an exception to every rule of the genre like Swados was, it might be wisest to leave them out of musicals altogether.