Finding the Holocaust in musical culture

Sherf will take the lecture concept to Jerusalem on March 28 at the Khan Theater in English and Hebrew.

ZERO MOSTEL and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers’ (photo credit: FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER)
ZERO MOSTEL and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers’
A new lecture will dissect how some of the world’s most famous and beloved musicals in history can help shed light on cultural perceptions of the Holocaust.
“The Sound of Goosesteps,” as the lecture is titled, will indeed feature The Sound of Music, Cabaret and The Producers as its case studies for analyzing the Holocaust’s role in musicals throughout time. All three musicals were written by Jews, yet they subsequently address the looming presence of Nazi Germany at the time differently within their work.
“That’s part of what’s interesting to me in musical theater,” said Eyal Sherf, the creator of the lecture series. “It’s more than just escapism, it can actually show and reflect what happens during those times and it’s kind of a social history.”
The lecture will be held at the third hall of Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque  in honor of International Holocaust Memorial Day. The lecture, which will be presented to its largest audience ever on January 29 in Tel Aviv, is the brainchild of Sherf, a performer, and now lecturer in musical history.
Sherf will take the lecture concept to Jerusalem on March 28 at the Khan Theater in English and Hebrew.
An easy example of how the treatment of Nazism in musicals changed over time was the use of swastikas in the original stage productions, Sherf said. Through his research, Sherf said he discovered that swastikas were not used in the original production of The Sound of Music, although later adaptations of the musical used them. Sherf explained that at the time of the musical’s debut, the Holocaust was still little discussed and swastikas had yet to be so directly affiliated with Nazi Germany. The show, created in 1959 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, revolved around a sweet nun-turned-caretaker for seven children. It was the first stage musical to address Nazism.
By the time Cabaret debuted in 1966, Sherf said, the publicity of the Eichmann trials started to lend images of the Holocaust to social history. The connection between swastikas had become apparent, as could be seen in the show’s production. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb created the groundbreaking musical, as Nazi characters took a larger role within the plot and the themes of the Holocaust resonated more strongly throughout.
Mel Brooks had said his lifelong dream was to take revenge of Adolf Hitler through ridicule, and had manifested his opportunity to do so with 1967’s The Producers. He adapted the film into a musical in 2001, which garnered 12 Tony Awards.
“The swastikas are just ubiquitous,” Sherf said. “They appear everywhere, everywhere in The Producers. And what’s really interesting in The Producers and what makes it such a brilliant piece, is that it’s a new musical formula built on musical comedy, so it kind of reflects a yearning to go back to the days of good old comedy, which was created by Jews. The Jews win by bringing Hitler down through ridicule.”
FOR SHERF, part of the joy of the lecture is being able to perform songs from each musical. In his lectures, explanations are embellished with Sherf’s own singing, accompanied by a pianist.
Sherf, who also has experience working as a cantor for Temple Beth-El in Cedarhurst, New York, received his master of arts in musical theater from New York University, and is a graduate of the acting program at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in England.
Bridging the different experiences he has as a performer and a fan of musicals with those of pop culture make for a significant analysis of the musicals, he said.
“With The Sound of Music, everybody really loves the movie,” Sherf said. “I would say that... the stage show has a sophistication… that is underplayed in the movie.”
The lecture’s goal, Sherf said, is also to bring awareness to the value musicals have culturally.
“It goes to show that musicals can be deeper than people give them credit for, particularly nowadays, when new musicals that get written are really allowed to say something and the old musicals are looked at through different eyes. That’s just like looking at things with more layers, which makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience,” he said.
Before embarking on musical lectures, Sherf performed in numerous productions in New York City, including the Drama Desk Award-winning revival of The Pirates of Penzance. In New York he also created and performed his one-person show How Jerry Herman Got Me Through Analysis directed by theater and film luminary Austin Pendleton. He is currently appearing in Gebirtig at Israel’s Yiddishpiel Theatre, and has been seen in the television series Naor’s Friends, The House of Dogs, and Miller Junction.