Imagine this: you’ve written a musical that you think has great music. It has been recorded and performed in concert, but can’t quite get a full staging because people say the book is weak and the lyrics banal. What to do? How about writing another musical with a different lyricist and a different librettist about people putting on a musical? You could use the one you already wrote as the musical they are staging. That should do it!
That’s what composer Shuki Levy has done. The result is Imagine This and it succeeded in getting a full production in London. What’s more, the Los Angeles public television station KCET televised the London production and then released it on DVD and, simultaneously, put out a CD of the songs from that performance. What it didn’t get was reviews good enough to keep it running until word of mouth had a chance to build an audience. It opened on November 19, 2008. It closed on December 20.
Still, there’s that DVD. There’s that CD. It isn’t often that both a DVD and a CD come out for a musical that flopped, and it is interesting to be able to watch a performance once or even twice so you really understand the function the songs fulfill in the musical and then have the CD of the songs for multiple revisits.
Shuki Levy wasn’t wrong when he thought he had written good music. There are a number of melodies of note in his score, melodies which – given a couple of listens – will lodge themselves in the brain (but not the heart – the music is good, not great). That the melodies, counter-melodies and song structures are less theatrical than they are reminiscent of movie themes shouldn’t be too surprising given his history. This is the man who wrote the themes for more movies and animated television series that you might see on a Saturday morning than practically anyone. (Remember the television cartoon version of “Spider Man”? I don’t, but he wrote the theme.)
The musical that never found a production did find some fans among musical theater aficionados because of a high quality 1997 two-disc set. It was Masada, a “musical saga” of the events in Judea two thousand years ago when a band of nearly a thousand Jewish Zealots refused to submit to subjugation and and held off the legions of Rome on the top of the mountain known as Masada. That recording (Arpeggio 519710, ASIN: B000FDAMLO) featured none other than Davis Gaines, Michelle Nicastro and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Despite the value of its music, which often sounds like the score to a Hollywood extravaganza like “Ben Hur”, “The Ten Commandments” or “Spartacus”, especially when played by a symphony orchestra, the overall effect of listening to its two hour length is leaden and, eventually, dull.
Good idea, then, to clip its wings and just use some highlights in another musical which could serve as a framing story. Ah, but soaring ambitions resist change and the framing story Levy and his new collaborators came up with is just as pedantic and preachy as was the storytelling in Masada. How did they frame the story of Jews heroically resisting annihilation? By surrounding it with the story of Jews heroically resisting annihilation. This time, however, it isn’t two millennia ago in the middle east with the bad guy in Caesar’s service. It is a mere seventy years ago, and the forces of evil are in Hitler’s Nazi uniforms, herding their victims into a ghetto in Poland. They don’t want to kill off a thousand zealots on a hill top, they want to ship millions off to gas chambers.
The message is hardly new to the stage. Subjugation by evil is worth resisting. Levy and new collaborators David Goldsmith (lyrics) and Glenn Berenbeim (book) deliver this message by telling the story of a Jewish theater troupe in Warsaw that is staging a musical about the Jewish resistance at Masada. It is their leader’s own form of resistance but it turns out that the Nazis want the show to go on in order to keep the Jews in the ghetto from becoming suspicious as they prepare the trains for deportation to the east. The leader of the troupe faces the choice of collaborating with the Nazis by putting on the play, or spreading the truth about the destination of the trains.
All of this leads to a reaffirmation of the worth of human dignity and calls on the audience to “Imagine this: to laugh and love, is all you know, imagine hard enough, and soon it will be so.” Then, sounding more like John Lennon than anything else, the entire cast raises their voices singing “Imagine all the fear is gone, Imagine freedom living on, Live on in bliss, When you imagine this!”
The score contains some of the best music from the earlier show, Masada, and some fine new music for the framing story, the holocaust tragedy in Warsaw. It is a problem, however, that the new music sounds a lot like the old music, and you can’t tell by ear whether you are in 1939 Warsaw or Judea in 72 AD. Both sound like a made-for-TV epic. In the theater, the singers are supported by an orchestra of just over two dozen, not a symphony orchestra. The score benefits from the instrumental scale being closer to the scale of the cast. New orchestrations by Chris Walker enliven a few numbers with nice effects.
The DVD captures the entire show – including two numbers that are packaged as bonuses because they were apparently deleted from the version offered on television. This is not one of your “set up a camera, turn it on, play the show, turn it off” efforts that are more valuable archivably than interesting theatrically. Instead, a good deal of thought has been given to where to focus multiple cameras, where to cut from wide shots to closeups and how to give the television viewer a feel for how the entire production moves across the stage. It isn’t always satisfactory as there are a few visually confusing moments, but by and large it is a good job. The DVD also preserves the scenic design of Eugene Lee and the costumes of Ann Hould-Ward and the dramatic lighting work of Tim Mitchell.
The show itself can get a bit tedious with pretentious weight, but there are two performances of note. The first is by the star, which means that the performance really carries the production to whatever heights it can reach. This is the work of Peter Polycarpou as the head of the Warsaw theater troupe who also plays the leader of the Zealots on Masada’s mountain top. He imbues the character with a blend of humor and dignity and his big second act number “The Last Laugh” is one you just might go back to see over again more than once. It doesn’t work quite as well as a song on the CD, but as a scene on the DVD it is smashing. In a supporting role of a Jewish member of the troupe who plays a Christian slave of the Roman general, Michael Matus finds a way to turn a comic prayer song that might have come from the mouth of Tevye into that rare bird: a comedy routine that touches the heart.
The CD is packaged with full lyrics, a synopsis, full credits and enough photos to make it easy for those who don’t purchase the DVD to get the most out of the score.
[Video and audio portions available on the Imagine This Web site.]