With each year’s oncoming wave of ambitious Yalies, hundreds of transient theatrical productions emanate from mildewy residential college basements and the hallowed University Theater. Over 200 productions are mounted annually, and only the few, the proud, and sometimes the exceptionally horrible stand out of the middling crowd.
In the Yale Repertory Theater’s February productions — “Comedy on the Bridge” and “Brundibar” — the looming presence of marquee names, Broadway-ready production values and pitch-perfect cultural significance promises to provide something quite unlike anything Yale has ever seen. Springing to life beneath an animate full moon, the original children’s picture book “Brundibar,” written by theater heavyweight Tony Kushner and author Maurice Sendak (of “Where the Wild Things Are” bedtime fame), has been transformed into a fluorescent spectacle.
“Comedy on the Bridge” and “Brundibar,” a pair of translated Czech operas, have been adapted by Kushner and Sendak into their current incarnation at the University Theater under the guidance of the Yale Rep and California’s Berkeley Repertory Theater. And, emerging as the piece de resistance of the Yale Rep’s season, the production’s confluence of gifted collaborators, a compelling history and resonant cultural relevance promises to leave an impression in its wake after it moves south to 42nd.
Bringing up Brundibar, Yale-style
The current production of “Brundibar” began on the pages of a children’s book, moved through a solo production in Chicago and is now reincarnated with “Comedy on the Bridge,” its current companion, in a double feature first realized in November on the Berkeley Repertory stage. Traveling across the country for its East Coast premiere, the production traversed a wandering path until finally arriving at Yale’s University Theater.
The Long Wharf Theatre, under the artistic direction of Gordon Edelstein, was originally slated to co-produce with the Berkeley Repertory stage. But when they decided to bow out, the Yale Rep was pleased to fill in.
“When Long Wharf determined that it wasn’t going to be feasible for them to undertake it, we got together with Berkeley Rep and Gordon’s very gracious blessing because he thought it was an important project and should be seen,” said James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Rep and dean of the Yale School of Drama.
Transporting the production from the West Coast to the east has entailed sundry changes to tighten the production and fit it into its new home. The Yale Rep agreed to shoulder the cost of changes, raising additional funds in order to afford the Broadway-ready sets, costumes and special effects that are atypical for standard Yale theater fare.
At an opening night party for “Comedy” and “Brundibar,” Kushner and Sendak spoke over the sound of clinking silverware and glistening dinner salads.
“We’d just like to say how much we appreciate this,” Kushner said. “This was a big risk.”
Kushner later remarked that the partnership between Berkeley and Yale to bring the project to fruition worked well because each institution harbored an interest in works of merit that aren’t necessarily populist.
Per Kushner, Yale is a natural fit for the production of these works because “it is a smart place … and they’re operas.”
In the explorative, intellectual environment of Yale theater, the show’s creators took the opportunity with the show’s second staging to create a more coherent work.
Everyone involved in the project, especially Tony Taccone, the artistic director of Berkeley Rep and the director of the Yale production, traveled to New Haven with the intention of fine-tuning the play, focusing on marrying the two disparate works by underscoring their common and complementary themes.
A more perfect union
The addition of more child-like elements, including an opening march of children across a bridge, shifts “Comedy” into surreal aestheticism of “Brundibar.” A heightened emphasis on fantastical elements — soaring Zeppelins, fish-costumed children — transposes the adult-themed opera to a tale seen through a child’s eyes, Taccone said, imbuing “Brundibar” with a great thematic congruity.
This seems to have worked, at least according to Greg Anthony, the show’s musical director and conductor in its Yale incarnation.
“Thus far it’s a clearer production,” Anthony said. “Whatever ambiguousness that was happening in Berkeley is clearer in ‘Comedy’ now.”
Philip Greene, special assistant to the dean of the Music School, said he was thrilled with the collaboration between the School of Drama and the School of Music, citing that the work also communicated a powerful message about war.
“It’s a fine art to make comedy out of something grim,” he said. “Maybe something celebratory comes out of that.”
An Eli Anschluss
Filling a scanty 17-person pit, School of Music graduate students make up the orchestra. Though Anthony first balked at the notion of using students in a professional production, he has come to enjoy the unique vision they bring to their work.
“They’re wonderful because I don’t feel like they’re jaded by the world of just trying to make money as a musician,” Anthony said. “They’re really fantastic.”
The actor who played Brundibar at Berkeley was unable to make the dates at the Yale Rep, creating yet another opportunity for a Yale student to participate. Auditions were held to determine which drama student would get the chance to collaborate with the author of “Angels in America,” a part for which Joe Gallagher DRA ’07 was eventually cast. Taccone noted that Gallagher’s strong point was his ability to tap into the younger spirit of Brundibar, “a teenage boy gone bad.” Ironically, Gallagher enrolled in drama school to escape the type-casting of Broadway, where he was repeatedly cast as a teenage boy. Gallagher’s professional career helped him adapt to the demands of the production, but he said he was nonetheless strained by having only three weeks to rehearse for the title role.
“I feel a little bit like I’m getting shot out of a cannon,” Gallagher said, taking a moment between Tuesday’s rehearsal and performance to talk with scene in his dressing room at the University Theater.
Rounding out the cast is an ensemble of over 30 children between the ages of eight and 12 who hail from New Haven and the surrounding area. The children further unify the two operas while adding an exuberance and spontaneity to the performance. Their value to the production isn’t lost on more seasoned members of the cast.
“Having all the kids around adds a whole other dimension to the production,” Gallagher said.
Although “Comedy on a Bridge” and “Brundibar” are hardly typical of a Yale production, they share a few of the core values of standard Yale theater. Combining cultural relevance, wit and a gripping historical context is a common Yale theatrical trope, and Bundy views this production as following this tradition.
“Typically, plays that are done at Yale are really smart, and I think this is true in the undergraduate community as well,” Bundy said. “We depend a lot on the intelligence and the joy of our audience in work that is layered, work that is language-driven and work that is sophisticated. You don’t get a lot of juke-box musicals at Yale.”
The impressive marquee crowning the show doesn’t hurt either.
“If Tony Kushner wrote a juke-box musical, sign me up,” Bundy said with a smile.
Out of a time of war
Pulitzer-Prize winner Kushner forms the pivot point for this production. Sendak first approached him to adapt the libretto of “Brundibar” from its original Czech in the late 1990s. Kushner insisted on collaborating on a children’s book, Sendak’s forte, before taking the project to the stage. After th
e book’s release in 2003, the show was produced as a pure opera in Chicago before emerging from its chrysalis and merging with “Comedy on a Brindge” to become a novel theatrical creation. However, the historical roots of both works extend far beyond the ’90s.
Based on a 19th century play, “Comedy on the Bridge,” composed by Bohuslav Martinu in 1935, feels like a Modernist existential farce hemmed by truths of fear, war and bureaucracy. Five adults are stuck on a bridge, remaining in the no man’s land between two warring cities, where they finally conclude that the world offers “no home nor achorage/ life’s lived upon a bridge.”
“Brundibar,” composed by Hans Krasa in 1938, grounds this picture of an irreconcilable and deeply disturbing time of war in the reality that people have the ability to change their situations. The plot follows a brother and sister who band together with a gaggle of schoolchildren to overthrow a tyrant organ grinder through persistence and solidarity.
Superficially, the two operas may seem like they have little in common. “Comedy on the Bridge,” a Godot-esque piece, offers one set, a love triangle and the confusion of border bureaucracy, while “Brundibar,” primarily for children, is constructed with an ice cream seller, anthropomorphized animals, and songs about the curative powers of milk.
But the coherence of the two works runs much deeper. Through reliance upon visual allegory, the operas succeed in telling a story deeply grounded in reality: the universal tale of humanity’s resistance to oppression and the transcendence of creativity in troubled times.
A portion of history’s sadness snakes about the edges of the children’s triumph. The children who originated the roles did not escape the Brundibar that waited for them in the wings. Performed originally in the Jewish Boys’ Orphanage of the Prague ghetto, the piano score to the opera snuck into the Terezin “model ghetto” when the show’s cast and directors were relocated to the concentration camp. The show was performed in the Terezin camp a total of 55 times and eventually incorporated into a propaganda film entitled “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” (The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City).
The children, their director, conductor and Krasa all perished in Auschwitz before the end of the war.
This deafening reality gives the uplifting allegory a different aftertaste, a lingering bitterness that can be felt even in today’s more upbeat production.
“The cloud that this was performed in a concentration camp kind of hangs over your head the whole time,” Anthony said.
From Terezin to York Street
In discussing the production’s relevance to today, Bundy referred to the tangible reality that tyranny and the terrors of war are still very present after the dawn of a new century.
“Thank God there is no Terezin today,” he said. “But there are places that are like Terezin, and they are places that could be like Terezin sooner rather than later.”
Taccone echoed this sentiment of a collective weight of the fear of war.
“Even though it’s a distant war … the reality of it has gotten under our skin collectively,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that there isn’t a single American who doesn’t know about Iraq, doesn’t know that guys are dying, doesn’t know that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Through the story and unsettling historical context of “Brundibar,” this production has a very real message to communicate while maintaining its function as art and entertainment.
This message, as framed by Laura Sewell, company manager of the Youth Ensemble, is simple.
“It’s the idea of kids coming together as a single voice to stamp out tyranny,” Sewell said. “Together we’re stronger than one single person.”
Taccone feels “Brundibar” is so vitally relevant to our times precisely because of this message, which comes as a stark contrast to an often-cynical, detached doctrine of individualism.
For Taccone, theater is about the collaboration and cooperation of artistic talent.
“The act of theater is an act of communal rapport,” he said, “a sharing of ideals and values.”
The vivid production of “Comedy on the Bridge” and “Brundibar” is the representation, and crowning acheivement, of that community. From collaborations between prominent theaters to dynamic artistic partnerships, the double-header production is a triumph both for modern American theater and the Yale community.