A few days ago, I called attention to a quote from one of the creators of a new musical called Signs of Life, which is set in and around the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. (I compared it to The Producers, and specifically to “Springtime for Hitler,” the musical-within-the-musical, described by its deranged creator as “a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.”) The quote in question averred that the questions about Nazi era Germans and how they responded to their leaders had a great deal to teach us about America over the past decade — an observation of which the best that can be said is that it is a bit more tasteful than the very notion of a musical set at Thereseinstadt.
The writers and creators of Signs of Life, evidently thrilled that anybody is willing to write about them at all, have fired a broadside at me using the old “how can he criticize our show without seeing it” gambit:
You are well-known as a protector of the memory of the Holocaust and as someone who, by his own admission, knows “the lyrics to every show tune ever written.” We were therefore dismayed to read your post on Commentary about our new off-Broadway musical, Signs of Life. Your casually insulting aside about the “wonderfully tuneful” quality of the show-which as far as we can tell you have not seen-is irresponsible enough, but to make the ugly accusation that we believe “the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush” is contemptible.
The characters in our show must participate in the Nazi propaganda machine in order to survive; when they realize the implications of their participation they face ethical choices that endanger their lives. But the obligation of citizens across the political spectrum to question our leaders and evaluate the truth of their answers did not end on V-Day.
The idea you seem to advocate-that if you put an event as vastly horrific as the Holocaust onstage you should do it as a museum piece, rather than exploring what we might learn from it about human nature-implies that today’s society is no longer capable of a Holocaust, which is a position both false and dangerous.
We would like to invite you to see Signs of Life and to judge based on experience rather than distortion and mockery whether our show honors the memory of those slaughtered in the Holocaust. Please e-mail us and we’ll arrange tickets for whatever date you’d like.
Now, while I do place myself very much on the anti side on the admittedly complex aesthetic question of using the Holocaust as an artistic setting — and, not incidentally, on the anti side when it comes to the use of the musical form as a vehicle for the serious treatment of just about any topic, notwithstanding my deep love of musicals and the American songbook they created — that wasn’t the reason I wrote the item. I wrote the item because of something the show’s composer, Joel Derfner, said. Which was this: “The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad.’ It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”
Now let’s parse this. What happened 30 years ago in this country? Ronald Reagan’s election. What happened nine years ago? George W. Bush’s inauguration. Who’s making repulsive and unwarranted associations now? The Signs of Life team is right that someone said something contemptible, but it wasn’t I.
And thanks for the invitation, but I’ll pass; I already did my time years ago when, courtesy of P.J. O’Rourke, who secured it from God-knows-where, I once read the entirety of the screenplay for the Jerry Lewis epic, The Day the Clown Cried.