|Productions||2008 West End, 2016 Germany|
Imagine This is a musical with music by Shuki Levy, lyrics by David Goldsmith and a book by Glenn Berenbeim. Set in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, it focuses on a family of actors trying to stage a play about the siege at ancient Masada to inspire hope and optimism within the Jewish community.
"Professor David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary has written that a little known poem, Masada, by Isaac Lamdan 'more than any other text inspired the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto'".
Israeli composer Levy had long nurtured an interest in writing a show about the siege at Masada around 70 CE. He took the music that he had written for the subject to television writer Berenbeim, who resisted the idea, particularly the mass suicide ending of the historical story. But then he decided that the story could work as a play-within-a-play about actors in the Warsaw Ghetto. He told The Times, "I was suddenly interested in the story for its metaphorical value, not its robes and sandals." Goldsmith joined the team, relishing the chance to write for the serious story.
After a tryout at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in July 2007, the musical opened in the West End at the New London Theatre on 19 November 2008, following previews from 4 November 2008. It closed on 20 December 2008. Directed by Timothy Sheader, with choreography by Liam Steel, the cast featured Peter Polycarpou and Leila Benn Harris.
An Original London Cast Recording was released through Dress Circle in the UK. A DVD of the London production was also released.
The filmed version of the West End production aired throughout 2010 on PBS stations in over 40 markets in the United States, as part of their pledge drives and regular programming. It was broadcast with a panel discussion moderated by Neal Gabler, which included director Timothy Sheader, cast members Peter Polycarpou, Sarah Ingram and Roy Litvin, and Holocaust scholar Thane Rosenbaum.
In October 2014 Theatreworkz, an independent amateur theatre company performed the National Amateur Premiere of Imagine This to resounding critical acclaim from both local audiences, schools and from industry professionals.
In October 2016 the Freies Musical-Ensemble Münster, an amateur theatre company from Münster, Germany performed the German Premiere of Imagine This. The production received very good press criticism and was enthusiastically received by the audience.
After a glimpse of happier times in Poland before World War II, the scene shifts to 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto. There, a company of actors is headed by actor-manager Daniel Warshowsky. Daniel's wife is taken by Nazis.
As the company rehearses a play, Adam, a resistance fighter, bursts in and is hidden by the actors. The Nazis follow and arrest Daniel's son. Being one actor short, Daniel tells Adam he will have to play his son's part. Adam tells the company about the fate awaiting those who board the train to Treblinka. He believes that it is necessary to resist the Nazis. Daniel, on the other hand, believes in theatre as a way to help the Ghetto inhabitants escape the horrible reality in which they live ("Imagine This").
Daniel and the company stage a play about the siege and mass suicide of the Jews at the fortress at Masada around 70 CE by the Roman Empire. The story of the resistance in ancient times parallels the determination by the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 to resist the Nazis. Daniel plays the leader of the ancient rebellion, Eleazar, and his daughter Rebecca plays Eleazar's daughter Tamar. Tamar is loved by the Roman General Silva, played by Adam. Just before the interval, the Nazis board the stage and promise the audience two loaves of bread and a jar of jam if they board the trains to "a new life in the east" on the following morning. They ask the Jews to bring a suitcase each, containing their most precious belongings.
The Nazis offer Daniel and his company safe passage to Switzerland if they carry on with the play in order to keep the Jews calm. The company struggles to decide between collaboration with the Nazis in return for their freedom and life, and sacrifying themselves in order to warn their audience. They decide that those who support standing for the truth will get up after the scene of mass suicide in Masada. When the scene is complete, they get up one by one until all stand. When the play draws to a close, the Masada landscape is lowered to reveal graffiti written by the actors warning the Jews not to board the train. The outraged Nazis storm the stage, push the company (except Rebecca and Adam) off the stage and murder them (off stage). Adam fights Captain Blick (the Nazi commander), and Rebecca grabs Blick's pistol and shoots him. Adam and Rebecca are presumed to survive.
All the characters return in their pre-war attire to sing "Imagine This".
Roles and original London cast UK National Amateur Premiere (The Warsaw character names are followed by the Masada character names in brackets)
- Rebecca (Tamar) - Leila Benn Harris Rebecca (Tamar) - Elly Taylor
- Daniel (Eleazar) - Peter Polycarpou Daniel (Eleazar) - Neil Richardson
- Max (Jeremiah) - Sevan Stephan Max (Jeremiah) - David Gudgeons
- Sarah (Naomi) - Sarah Ingram Sarah (Naomi) - Jenine Grover
- Adolph (Caesar) - Bernard Lloyd Adolph (Caesar) - Peter Haynes
- Lola (Salome) - Cameron Leigh Lola (Salome) - Caroline Redden
- Jan (Aaron) - Steven Serlin Jan (Aaron) - Martin Grover
- Izzy (Pompey) - Michael Matus Izzy (Pompey) - Spencer Hawkes
- Otto (Rufus) - Gary Milner Otto (Rufus) - Frazer McDonald
- Adam (Silva) - Simon Gleeson Adam (Silva) - Chris Squires
- Captain Blick - Richard Cotton Captain Blick - Sebastian Goss
- Leon (David) - Alexander Kalian/Jamie Davis/Nathan Attard Leon (David) - Louis Meminger
- Jacob - Marc Antolin Jacob - Joel Wylie
- Hannah - Rececca Sutherland Hannah - Carole Haynes
In spite of several four-star reviews, including the Sunday Telegraph ("A Triumph" "I adore this show" "4-stars"), the London Paper ("A mesmerising journey"), London Lite ("Bursting with drama" - 4 stars), Spoonfed.co.uk ("It must be rated a triumph"), The West End Whingers ("We were humming the tunes the next day. Extraordinary") and others, the musical closed after two weeks of previews and a month of regular performances upon receiving generally poor reviews from the mainstream British critics, with "many papers attacking it for trivializing the Holocaust". The press questioned whether, during the current economic woes, audiences want to see such a dark story. Echoing a number of the reviews, a writer in The Guardian criticized the "cavalier" treatment of the subject and contended that critics were right to question whether "the Holocaust was being co-opted to legitimise and lend cachet to deficient art."
However, some of those critics, namely Norman Lebrecht, reviewed the musical without ever having seen it, getting on the radio and boasting as much in a radio interview with producer Beth Trachtenberg. Its proximity in opening a mere six weeks after the global economic crisis of 2008 no doubt played its role as well in posting its early notice.
Ultimately some redemption did arrive for the show with the announcement of the season's What's On Stage Theatregoer's Awards, for which Imagine This received four nominations, those for Best Scenic Design (Eugene Lee), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Matus), Best Actress (Leila Benn Harris) and Best Musical (Glenn Berenbeim, Shuki Levy, and David Goldsmith).
- "Imagine Posts Early Notices at New London", whatsonstage.com, 8 December 2008
- Dessau, Bruce. "Imagine This: a musical about Nazis", The Times, October 25, 2008
- Shenton, Mark. "London's Imagine This, Musical About Actors in the Warsaw Ghetto, Will Close Dec. 20", playbill.com, 8 December 2008
- Historically, the Jews were gassed upon arrival at Treblinka and their belongings were stolen by the Nazis.
- Wolf, Matt. "Why the Holocaust musical was right to close", The Guardian, 8 December 2008
- Official site
- Imagine This review at the British Theatre Guide
- Review and song list, curtainup.com, 20 November 2008
- Freies Musical-Ensemble Münster: Imagine This 2016