Comedy on the Bridge
Libretto by Tony Kushner
Adapted from Václav Kliment Klicpera
Music by Bohuslav Martinu
Libretto by Tony Kushner
Adapted from Adolf Hoffmeister
Music by Hans Krása
Production designs by Maurice Sendak with Kris Stone
Featuring members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra
Music Director Valerie Gebert
Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Roda Theatre
November 11–December 28, 2005
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission
Berkeley Rep is proud to present Brundibar, a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration between two artistic giants: Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak. Not only is Kushner the acclaimed author of Angels in America and Homebody/Kabul, he wrote the brilliant libretto for Caroline, or Change—now he’s penned a new libretto for this remarkable musical fable. Sendak’s singular style is famous from books such as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen—don’t miss his spectacular designs for this production. An allegory of innocence triumphing over evil, the opera Brundibar was originally composed in the ominous years leading up to World War II and was performed by children imprisoned at Terezín, the Nazi’s notorious “model ghetto.” In 2003, Kushner and Sendak published a picture-book version of this classic tale; now audiences can enjoy it live! Brundibar will be presented alongside the pair’s adaptation of Comedy on the Bridge, an absurdist commentary on war also written in Czechoslovakia in the thirties. According to Kushner, “Both shows are a testament to the creative power of human beings, even in dark times, to turn ugliness into music.” They will be directed by his longtime collaborator, Artistic Director Tony Taccone, and performed by a multigenerational cast that includes a chorus of 29 local school children.
Tony Kushner · Librettist and Adaptor
Maurice Sendak · Production Design
Kris Stone · Production and Set Design
Robin I. Shane · Costume Design
Donald Holder · Lighting Design
Rob Milburn · Sound Design
Michael Bodeen · Sound Design
Kimi Okada · Movement Director
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Cynthia Cahill · Assistant Stage Manager
Janet Foster · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Valerie Gebert · Music Director and Conductor
Tony Taccone · Director
Eddie Kurtz · Assistant Director
MaryBeth Cavanaugh · Associate Movement Director
Akiko Kosaka · Assistant Scenic Designer
Kenichi Takahashi · Assistant Scenic Designer
Caroline Chao · Assistant Lighting Designer
John Petrafesa · Assistant Sound Designer
Audry Rosales · Stilt Coach
Marc Warren / On Center Productions · New York Production Manager
Billy Philadelphia · Children’s Choir Director
Skye Atman · Assistant to the Musical Director
Comedy on the Bridge
Anjali Bhimani · Popelka
Henry DiGiovanni · Captain Ladinsky
Matt Farnsworth · Sykos
Geoff Hoyle · The Strokopounkutnik Sentry
Euan Morton · The Liskovite Sentry
Angelina Réaux · Eva
Martin Vidnovic · Bedronyi
William Youmans · Professor Ucitelli
Anjali Bhimani · The Sparrow
Henry DiGiovanni · The Ice-Cream Seller
Matt Farnsworth · The Milkman
Aaron Simon Gross · Pepicek
Geoff Hoyle · The Baker / The Dog
Euan Morton · Brundibar
Devynn Pedell · Aninku
Angelina Réaux · The Cat
Martin Vidnovic · The Policeman
William Youmans · Professor Ucitelli
Aaron Simon Gross
Yasushi Ogura · Violin 1 / Concert Master
Candace Sanderson · Violin 2
Darien Cande · Viola
Nancy Bien Souza · Cello
Michel Taddei · Bass
Leslie Chin · Flute / Piccolo
Deborah Shidler · Oboe
Diana Dorman · Clarinet
Carla Wilson · Bassoon
Stuart Gronningen · French Horn
Catherine Murtagh · Trumpet
Kevin Neuhoff · Timpani / Percussion
Barry Koron · Piano / Accordion
Valerie Gebert · Conductor
“First-rate!…A dream-like comic world.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Joy!…Gives audiences the feeling they’ve stepped into a Sendak story.”—Contra Costa Times
“A big holiday present.”—Oakland Tribune
“Heartwarming!…for every member of the family.”—KGO-AM
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
A grand and intimate journey
Like so many other people, I first discovered Maurice Sendak through my children. Their love for his books merged happily with my own joy in discovering his singular imagination. The worlds he described were filled not only with an endless array of fantastical creatures and brilliant landscapes, but with a mischievous sense of humor and a deep sense of empathy for children trying to survive a truly scary world. The laughter and happiness in these books never seemed entirely removed from the cares of life, but motivated—usually—by loss, by the need to find some way to triumph over suffering and sorrow.
Partnering with Tony Kushner (he of his own fantastical creatures and brilliant landscapes), Sendak recently illustrated the tale of Brundibar, an allegory rooted in the rise of fascism in Czechoslavakia before World War II. Not satisfied with publishing a wonderful book, the two subsequently turned their enormous talents to designing and adapting the famous children’s opera by Hans Krása. Offered a production at the Chicago Opera Theater, they decided to pair Brundibar with Comedy on the Bridge, another one-act of the same period by Bohuslav Martinu. Taken together, the pieces form a picture of modern culture which is both terrifying and splendid: communities struggling against the mighty forces of war, despair and powerlessness with endless vigor and ingenuity. While Comedy is more focused on an adult experience and Brundibar on children, both seek solace from oppression through compassion, humor, solidarity and, ultimately, creativity.
Tonight’s production attempts to realize the ambitions of both the music and the narrative: an evening designed to satisfy almost all of your aesthetic appetites. We are overjoyed to be able to present the work of two of America’s preeminent artists supported by the wealth of talent of our own artistic community. The chorus of 29 children in this show comes from virtually the entire Bay Area, while the remainder of the extraordinary and unique cast hails from every part of the country. It is, both literally and figuratively, our own little circus.
Needless to say, it has taken the full measure of the skills of the staff at Berkeley Rep to produce this project. We have embarked upon this journey, together with our good colleagues at the Yale Repertory Theatre, in an attempt to create a piece of art that is both grand and intimate—and which, with regard to both content and form, raises the proverbial bar. We thank you for your continuing support as we expand the definition of what is possible.
Music with a point
Tony Kushner on the survival of two works of art that dared to ask for hope in a time of war
In 1938, the Czech Ministry of Education and Culture sponsored a competition for a children’s opera. Among those vying for the prize was a 40-year-old Prague composer, Hans Krása, whose entry, libretto by the playwright Adolf Hoffmeister, was Brundibar (the word is Czech for bumblebee).
I haven’t been able to find out whether Brundibar won the competition, or whether the competition was ever concluded. A few months after the opera was completed the German army invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. Krása, who was Jewish, would have been barred from participation in such a contest, his music unperformable before a general audience according to Nazi race laws. Brundibar was not given its premiere until 1942 at the Vinohrady Jewish Boys’ Orphanage, which had become a concert and recital hall for the Jews of the Prague ghetto. Before the first performance, Krása, as well as the opera’s conductor, Rafael Schaechter, were arrested and sent in the first transport of Prague Jews to Theresienstadt, or Terezín, the Nazis’ “model ghetto” for the Jews of Central Bohemia—in reality a concentration camp and a way station for the death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka.
In spite of the arrests, Brundibar was performed at the Vinohrady Orphanage, conducted by a teenager, Rudolph Freudenfeld, son of the orphanage’s director. The piece was given three performances before the transports rounded up Freudenfeld father and son, director and designer Frantisek Zelenka, pianist Gideon Klein, who had been the accompanist, and the boys of the Vinohrady Orphanage.
Rudolph Freudenfeld had hidden a copy of the piano score in his luggage, and so Brundibar arrived in Terezín, where Krása was now the inmate in charge of music for the Freizeitgestaltung (Free Time Activities Administration). Krása brilliantly reorchestrated the piano score, taking advantage of the presence in Terezín of a number of talented instrumentalists. In September 1943, the Vinohrady group, now concentration camp inmates, staged a new, co-ed production, cast with imprisoned children. The opera itself became a hit among the inmate population; Rudolph Freudenfeld conducted, Zelenka directed and designed a new set, the poet Emil Saudek wrote a new anthem for the opera’s finale, emphasizing Brundibar’s political value as allegory—in photos of the production the boy playing Brundibar is wearing something like a toothbrush moustache.
Brundibar was performed 55 times at Terezín. It was begun by Jews for Jews, but before long the camp officials recognized the propaganda potential of Brundibar, with its singing prisoner children and “happy” (or at least momentarily distracted) prisoner audiences. The opera was performed for the International Red Cross committee-of-one (an inexperienced young man, utterly charmed and duped by the Nazi commandant) sent to inspect camp conditions. Segments of the performance were filmed and included in the film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City), produced by the Nazis and directed by a camp inmate, the great actor and singer Kurt Gerron.
The opera’s conductor and director, the poet Saudek, Kurt Gerron and nearly all the children who performed Brundibar were eventually sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. Brundibar’s composer, Hans Krása, died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz in October 1944.
Brundibar is a beautiful children’s story, extolling the virtues of courage and cooperation and collective action against tyranny. In a sense, it’s a tale of the outrage and rebellion of even the natural world of dogs, cats and sparrows against things as unnatural as injustice and poverty and the suffering of children. It’s a tale of the power of music to make miracles happen. It’s a story of good defeating evil. But its history is haunted by a single instance of evil defeating good. I suppose one could say that the music triumphs: today Brundibar is performed all over the world, the Jewish people have survived. On the other hand, one must always be wary of drawing false reassurances from the horrific lessons of the Holocaust, perhaps especially now, when children all over the world are in such mortal danger—poor children, children in war zones, Jewish and Palestinian children, as well as homeless, uninsured, unprotected children in the United States. I think in dark times such as these, Brundibar, both the opera and its tragic history, shouldn’t offer us a reassurance; we shouldn’t draw comfort from the fact that, even after the worst has happened, people and art survive. Some people do, many people don’t; some art survives, but of course much creative brilliance, like Hans Krása’s, is extinguished before its time. Here’s what I think Brundibar offers us, its final exhortation: Be brave, and you can make bullies behave! Rely on friends! And tyrants of all kinds, in every generation, can be and must be resisted.
Comedy on the Bridge (Veselohra na moste), by the prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, was commissioned by Prague Radio in 1935, written that year in Paris and broadcast in 1937—virtually contemporaneous with Brundibar. The libretto is based on a 19th-century play by Václav Kliment Klicpera, but the story of people trapped between warring armies, exposed and vulnerable on a bridge, must have had an ominous contemporary resonance for Martinu. The world in the mid-1930s was watching fascism rise, Germany arm itself, Stalinism darken in the east and the looming Second World War, already discussed in some quarters as an inevitability. By the time Comedy had its first live, staged performance, in May 1951 in New York, Martinu had been living in the United States for 11 years. Far more fortunate than Krása, Martinu arrived in New York in 1940, a refugee driven out of Prague and then Paris by the Wehrmacht. He never lived in his homeland again.
Though not nearly as tragic as Brundibar, Comedy on the Bridge is another work whose history is intertwined with war and oppression. Both are products of the middle of the 20th century, at a time when the world was sunk in nightmare. Their beauty is testament to the creative power of human beings, even in dark times, to turn ugliness into music. But it’s music with a point, or rather two simple but all-important points: fight together for justice; work, hope, pray and strive for peace.
Humor in the face of inhumanity
By Lauren McConnell, PhD
At Bohuslav Martinu’s funeral in 1959, a friend noted, “His music is the music of our times, because it expresses profound basic problems.” This could have been said of Hans Krása’s music as well. Both of these men were modern Czech composers using their artistic talent to grapple with enormous problems. How does one confront the horror of war and tyrannical leaders? How does one retain one’s humanity in an increasingly alienating world? How does one express the complexities of the 20th century through music? Although they had different compositional styles and dissimilar personalities, one outstanding characteristic can be found in both Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar: humor.
The Czech people have long been known for their sense of humor, even in the grimmest of circumstances. Some attribute this to the fact that, in the past, Czechs lived in a relatively small, peaceful society surrounded and usually dominated by larger, more aggressive cultures. Their sense of humor helped them survive and even, at times, thrive under these conditions. In the 19th century, Czechs were part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. World War I gave birth to Czechoslovakia as an independent republic in 1918, as well as its most famous and humorous fictional character: Sweik in The Good Soldier Sweik by Jaroslav Hasek. Hasek’s ironic anti-war novel, one of the first of its genre, set a standard to which other more recent works such as Catch-22 and MASH are often compared. The irreverent Sweik, who was either a very clever trickster or a bumbling fool, maneuvered his way through World War I with an ease that reminds one of his latter-day protégé: Forrest Gump. It was in this “Sweikian” comic tradition that Bohuslav Martinu, who was born in 1890 and lived through World War I, wrote Comedy on the Bridge.
Though best known for his serious orchestral and chamber works, the situation in Europe was far too grim during Hitler’s rise to power for Martinu not to respond humorously. In Comedy on the Bridge, which is based on an earlier play by 19th-century Czech playwright Václav Kliment Klicpera, a kind of anti-fairy tale ensues between Popelka (“Cinderella” in Czech) and her male admirers. Trapped on a bridge between two ever-warring armies, the mundane concerns of Popelka and the others are raised to the height of absurdity by the extremity of their situation. As heads literally roll, Martinu’s libretto is punctuated with a deeply ironic musical accompaniment. Whether or not the characters in Comedy live “happily ever after” depends largely on one’s personal philosophy.
Hans Krása (1899–1944) was the personification of what many considered two—or even three—distinct cultural traditions that coexisted harmoniously in Czechoslovakia’s democratic First Republic, which lasted from 1918 to 1938. His mother was German, his father was Czech and the family was Jewish. The wealthy and well-educated Krása was part of the dynamic German intellectual community in Prague at the time. Although composing came easily to him (unlike Martinu), Krása penned relatively few musical compositions. The main reason for this was that his life was tragically cut short by the Nazis in Auschwitz. However, prior to the war, he also seemed to lack creative drive. During the lively inter-war period, Krása spent most of his time discussing arts and politics with friends, playing chess and attending theatrical events and nightclubs. As the situation in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia became increasingly serious, however, Krása responded in kind. He wrote Brundibar in collaboration with librettist Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938. During the two years he spent in the Terezín concentration camp (1942–1944), Krása wrote three new compositions and revised two older pieces, bringing his total number of compositions to about a dozen, of which Brundibar is now the most famous.
The humor in Brundibar is gentler and ultimately more optimistic than Martinu’s Comedy, though this children’s opera also has surprisingly dark and mysterious moments. Whereas Comedy on the Bridge represents the more cynical Sweikian comic tradition, Brundibar’s humanistic and folksy qualities hearken back to the comic tradition of Karel Càapek. Càapek, author of the sci-fi play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and the novel War with the Newts, was deeply concerned with social justice and the fate of humanity in the face of extremism. When Brundibar was performed in Terezín, Krása changed the lyrics (with the help of poet Emil Saudek) to emphasize the importance of fairness and resistance, rather than the love of one’s parents and country. The ending became, ”He who loves justice and will abide by it, and who is not afraid, is our friend and can play with us.” Playwright Tony Kushner, one of the great social critics of our age, continues in this same tradition with his funny and exhilarating adaptation of Brundibar’s libretto. Kushner retains Krása’s message—and further stresses the merits of banding together to confront evil. As you will hear the children sing in this performance, “Our friends make us strong!” With Krása’s triumphant music, the combination is unbeatable. Tyrants beware!
No light without the dark
The incomparable mind of Maurice Sendak
No one does children’s stories like Maurice Sendak…over a hundred books in all. He’s won nearly every major prize for children’s literature plus the national medal of arts. And no wonder. Just look at these titles: In the Night Kitchen; Higglety Pigglety Pop; Outside Over There; Chicken Soup with Rice; and of course, the most loved and famous of all, Where the Wild Things Are.
Bill Moyers: My friend Joseph Campbell once told me long before I met you that one of the great moments in literature is this scene in Where the Wild Things Are: “And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still!’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.”
Joseph Campbell went and got that and read it to me. And he said, “That is a great moment because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.” And he said that was a great moment in literature.
Maurice Sendak: That’s very moving. I did not know.
But you were just making it up?
I was just making it up. A long time ago. I was 32 when I did that book. But if he’s right, that’s a wonderful and touching idea.
But do you believe it’s true? Do we all, adults and children, have to come to grips with our own untamed passions and…
Oh, yes. We’re animals. We’re violent. We’re criminal. We’re not so far away from the gorillas and the apes, those beautiful creatures. And then, we’re supposed to be civilized. We’re supposed to go to work every day. We’re supposed to be nice to our friends and send Christmas cards to our parents. We’re supposed to do all these things which trouble us deeply because it’s so against what we naturally would want to do. And as it turns out sometimes the so-called “right way” is utterly the wrong way. What a monstrous confusion.
Is writing books like this something like guerilla warfare?
Yes. That’s well said. Because you’re really fighting yourself all the way along the line. And I don’t know…I never set out to write books for children.
I was watching television. Christa Ludwig who was a great opera singer, had a surprising interview at the end of the concert where the guy said, “But, why do you like Schubert? You always sing Schubert.” And he sort of faintly condemned Schubert. “I mean, he’s so simple. He just does Viennese waltzes.” And she smiled. And she said, “Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in this miniature form.”
And I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the totem pole. We didn’t even get invited to grown-up book parties at Harper’s.
It was a woman’s world, wasn’t it?
It was a woman’s world. And you were suspect the minute you were at a party. “What do you do?” “I do books with children.” “Ah, I’m sure my wife would like to talk to you.” It was always that way. But, my thought was…that’s what I did. I didn’t have much confidence in myself…never. And so, I hid inside, like Christa was saying, this modest form called the children’s book and expressed myself entirely.
I wasn’t gonna paint. And I wasn’t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I wasn’t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerilla warfarer in my best books.
You deal so often in your work with the courage of children. What does it take for a child to have courage? And what do you mean by it?
Enormous innocence to really not know how evil the world can be.
Brundibar ends saying, “The wicked never win. We have our victory. Yet, tyrants come along. But, you just wait and see. They topple one, two, three. Our friends will make us strong. And thus, we end our song.”
Turn the page.
It’s a P.S. from Brundibar. “They believe they’ve won the fight. They believe I’m gone. Not quite. Nothing ever works out neatly. Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs. The next appears. And we shall meet again, my dears. Though I go, I won’t go far. I’ll be back. Love, Brundibar.” What are you saying there?
Well, you can’t get rid of evil. We can’t, and I feel that so intensely.
There’s a powerful illustration here. The children are on the backs of blackbirds. They’re flying through the starlit sky. Why blackbirds?
I don’t know for sure. Because the blackbirds are in this book, they’re both pro the kids and against the kids. Just like fate. Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes…And also a blackbird is from my passion for Schubert songs and his blackbirds and his birds of doom or birds of good.
Tony Kushner, your friend and collaborator, says you have a mind darkened by both fatalism and faith.
You agree with him? He knows you.
Yeah, he knows me almost too well. Fatalism, yes. Yes. Having lived through the wars in Europe and having lost so many people in my family when I was a child. Faith? Total faith in art. Total faith in art.
Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain.
I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal.
I can recollect it, I can notice it. I’m here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me, an observer, an observer.
Excerpted from the March 14, 2004 transcript of PBS’ NOW with Bill Moyers. Reprinted with permission from Maurice Sendak and Public Affairs Television.
A tragic lullaby
Towards the end of Brundibar, the children take a stand against the big bully, and lift their voices in song with the hopes of raising enough funds from the townspeople to buy milk. Instead of a rallying, cheerful tune, their song is a bittersweet lullaby. Tony Kushner’s lyrics tell of the passing of time and the separation occurring between mother and child, sadly mirroring the harsh reality of what happened to almost every child of Terezín who gave life to Brundibar.
In the basement, down below;
On the roof, where breezes blow;
Ev’ry kid in each apartment,
Rich and poor and quick and slow;
Knows when night is gath’ring nigh,
Mommy sings a lullaby:
Mommy sings rockabye,
Baby when you are grown,
You’ll sing a lullaby and
I’ll be left alone.
Baby blackbird, fly now;
Time to go;
Who knows why?
Spring is gone,
World awaits, it’s
Time to fly…
Trees grow high, rivers dry,
Clouds and hours billow by,
Day by day, flown away…
Baby, in such a rush,
Grew up, grew straight and tall;
Maybe you’ll feel a blush
When, Mommy, you recall:
Naked how you bath’d us,
In the old
Gave us milk,
You’ll soon forget…
Trees grow high, rivers dry,
Clouds and hours billow by,
Day by day, flown away…
Now you are very old;
Your hair is soft and grey;
Mommy, the cradle’s cold.
Blackbird has flown away…