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5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Joel Derfner

The first time Joel Derfner ever spoke to me was by phone. His first two words were “Twelve inches!” — and yes, it was delivered as a hyperventilated exclamation. The occasion was an interview about Derfner’s book, an autobiography called Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever, and “Twelve inches!” had nothing to do with my initial question. Still, you have to admire someone willing to put his not-a-foot forward, so a friendship was born.

I felt it appropriate to share the above anecdote because Derfner, a musical-theater composer and a teacher at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, leads the creative team of Signs of Life, a tuner about the World War II-era Jewish ghetto in the Czech town of Terezin (Theresienstadt). It was there that Hitler’s goons transformed an 18th century fortress into a concentration camp. Unlike the more overtly ghoulish Auschwitz, however, Terezin was conceived, for all outward appearances, as a model of Nazi treatment of the Jews; Hitler’s propaganda machine proudly proclaimed the settlement “a city for the Jews.” Filled with artists and intellectuals, Terezin appeared to be run by a Jewish Council. In fact, it was a schizophrenic and paranoid city populated by Jews on their way toward extermination at Auschwitz and, among the several hundred semi-permanent citizens, a community secretly producing a legacy of words, music and images that would later reveal to the world what really transpired.

Derfner, together with bookwriter Peter Ullian, lyricist Len Schiff and director Jeremy Dobrish, are mining especially fertile ground: Last year, Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven (Himmelweg) struck me as one of the best Holocaust plays I had ever seen, wresting the specter of Terezin from the shadows of history. Hans Kr√°sa’s Brundib√°r: A Children’s Opera, written by a composer who lived at Terezin and died in Auschwitz, was performed in the settlement some 55 times. A two-CD set of original compositions from the town, called Terezin: The Music 1941-44, was issued in 1991. There is also a foundation committed to preserving the music created during the era.

Signs of Life, however, may be the first time musical-theater vernacular has been employed to investigate the tragedy and triumph of Terezin itself. Produced by Amas Musical Theatre in association with Snap-Two Productions, the show runs through March 21 at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre (5 W. 63rd St.). Tickets can be purchased via the Web — or by calling 212-352-3101.

For the record, we decided not to ask Derfner about his new book, Gay Haiku, or about his great-grandmother’s fling with George Gershwin. But we did want to know more about the creation of Signs of Life.

And now, 5 questions Joel Derfner has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Bizarrely, I think the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked me about my work was the one I thought in the moment was the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked me about my work, which was, “What is your art?” I mean, really. What kind of a pretentious question is that? What is your ass?

But since I was on camera I had to say something, so I started talking, and I got somehow to Wyndham Lewis, who says in the introduction to Rotting Hill, “If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I despise rot.” And I said, “If I write about people who are cruel, it is because I despise cruelty.” And I kept going, and where I ended up was, “My art is compassion.” Which surprised me, in that I found I really meant it.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Can I answer a slightly different question and tell you the most idiotic criticism anyone has ever given me of my work?

Book writer Peter Ullian, lyricist Len Schiff, and I did a reading of Signs of Life at the Village Theater just outside of Seattle, Washington, as part of their new works program, an important element of which is that the audience fills out feedback forms. Now, without an audience there is no theater, so the opportunity to find out explicitly what moments in a show aren’t working for an audience is an invaluable one. But the trouble starts when people tell you why the moments aren’t working and how to fix them. This is because they identify as problems things that are actually symptoms. “The music for such-and-such a song needs to be less bouncy,” somebody will say, but making the music less bouncy would actually be deadly. The real problem is that the song is in the wrong place in the show. Move it to the first act and the bounciness feels exactly right.

Usually this isn’t difficult to deal with; you just make a note of the moment and figure out later how to deal with it. Occasionally, though, you’ll find somebody with an ax to grind, and the comments will be maddening. “The music for this song should be more like Philip Glass,” somebody wrote on her form. “Why isn’t this a rock musical?” asked somebody else.

My all-time unfavorite, however — I’m finally about to answer your question — was the one who wrote, “This music is so boring I can’t stand it. There are too many quarter-notes.” I’m afraid I overreacted to that one, and the next song I wrote for the show began with three pages of nothing but quarter notes. It didn’t stay in the score for long.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
His mouth was full at the time, so I couldn’t quite make it out.

4) Why does the Jewish artists’ ghetto of Terezin (Theresienstadt) sing? How do you ensure that breaking into song or underscoring scenes with music doesn’t turn a rough subject into something lighter than intended? Or is Signs of Life, on some level, light?
I have to start the answer to this question by saying that I think people grossly underestimate the power of musical theater. True, musicals can be really light and fluffy, and true, there’s a lot to be mined by writing a musical that makes fun of its subject matter or its characters or musicals themselves. But I think that that’s ultimately taking the easy way out. The human voice in song is among the most powerful forces in the world, and to say you shouldn’t use it to deal with essential questions in the world is selling humanity short. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said to me, “You’re writing a musical about what?” And then they see the show, and they’re like, oh, okay, that’s what you’re doing, I get it, this is great.

That said, Theresienstadt was full of music. There were concerts every night, there were operas, there were cabarets, there were swing bands, there were enough instrumentalists to fill two symphony orchestras. This is, of course, along with the painting, the drawing, the sculpture, the lectures on subjects ranging far and wide. Theresienstadt existedbecause the Nazis needed to create an illusion that life was wonderful for the Jews under Hitler; what better way to accomplish this than by filling it with artists, musicians and intellectuals? So, for a short time, Terezin was the cultural capital of the western world. How can such a place not sing?

5) As a composer, what is the most emotionally taxing part of writing Signs of Life? Is it finding melodic and harmonic ways to pay respect? Or is it translating what is innately dramatic about the ghetto into something unquestionably theatrical? How do you do that?
I think the hardest part of writing the show for me has been my own insufficiency in the face of such horror. For most of the show it’s OK, because I’m dealing with only one character, or two, or nine, or however many, and I feel all right saying, OK, here’s my interpretation of how this character would feel and act in this moment. But near the end of the first act of Signs of Life, one character learns that the thousands of Jews he’s been assigning to transports “to the east” — the Nazis haven’t told him anything else about where they’re going — have ended up in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. And he rends his jacket and says the mourners’ kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. And even though this prayer is usually spoken, since it’s a musical, we figured, OK, he should sing it. And I remember sitting at the piano in my apartment feeling completely overwhelmed and helpless and bursting into tears and crying the whole time I was writing. Because this wasn’t about what one character was feeling or doing; it was about a people mourning millions who had been slaughtered. And I mean, come on, who can write music that does that? I certainly can’t. So I did my best, and I like what I came up with, but I hope I don’t have to do anything like that again for a long, long time.

Bonus Question:

6) If you were a Holocaust survivor, what would you find hardest to accept about Signs of Life? What elements would speak to you most profoundly and why?
We’ve had Holocaust survivors and even Terezin survivors come see the show, and we’ve always been incredibly nervous, but their reactions have been positive. One man who’d been in Terezin as a child said, “It has the ring of truth.”

But I think that the part of the show that I’d have the most trouble with if I were a survivor — and in some ways the part of the show that I have the most trouble with as it is — is the fact that it was written at all. I’m a staunch atheist and, as far as I’m concerned, the Holocaust happened because there is no God and there is no higher purpose in the universe. But it’s my job as a composer to tell a story that means something. (I should mention that not all my collaborators share my atheism and that the show works from any perspective — atheist, agnostic, theist and everything in between.) I don’t think that the show ends up saying that the Holocaust happened for this purpose or that purpose. But telling the story at all puts you in the land of meaning, which, while it’s not exactly the same as the land of purpose, is still not a comfortable place to be where genocide is concerned. I think what makes me feel okay is the fact that the show deals to a large extent with finding meaning in a world that seems meaningless. One of the characters sings to God, “You really should have said when we began/It doesn’t take Your sacred voice/It only takes the mortal choice/To act as human as you can/To make a man.” And, in the end, I think that’s what the show is about.


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