Friday, October 29, 2010

(NEWS) New York Composer's Music Celebrates Holocaust Hero

"One person can make a difference in the lives of thousands.

That is the message of 'Wallenberg,' a musical that opens Saturday night at the White Plains Performing Arts Center in White Plains, N.Y.

The production brings to life the story of Raoul Wallenberg, who at the age of 32 left his wealthy family and the safety of Sweden to save Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1944. Using every means at his disposal, the Swedish diplomat succeeded in rescuing more than 100,000 Jews within a six-month period.

In January 1945, the Soviets, who had just entered Budapest, abducted and imprisoned Wallenberg, perhaps because his mission had been funded entirely by the United States. He was never again seen in the free world. Though the Soviet government announced that he had died of a heart attack in prison in 1947, many former Soviet prisoners who came out of the gulag in the decades since then reported that they had seen, spent time with, even befriended Wallenberg in various prisons and institutions. The last such report was in 1981. That same year, President Ronald Reagan made Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen.

While Oskar Schindler is a household name, largely because of the film 'Schindler’s List,' Wallenberg — who saved many more people — is virtually unknown, the show’s organizers lament.

'He saved more people than any other person or organization and he risked his life to do so,' said Benjamin Rosenbluth, the Teaneck composer who wrote the score for the production. 'This story screams to be told passionately to the public, and what better way than through a musical?'

But 'Wallenberg' should not be mistaken for a 'Holocaust musical,' Rosenbluth insists. 'It’s the story of an incredible optimist. It conveys a very positive message about what an individual can do to impact the world.'

Rosenbluth, who was classically trained in piano and composition at Juilliard before going on to earn an M.D. degree at Harvard, has been writing music since he was a child. He has worked with such big names as Marvin Hamlisch; his compositions have been performed by symphony orchestras; and a ballet was performed at Lincoln Center. The opportunity to write music for this dramatic story was 'too exciting not to tackle,' said Rosenbluth, the 37-year-old father of four.

He began working on the project in 2004 with writers Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman, collaborators who have won awards for their musical comedies and librettos.

Holzman had come up with the idea of a Wallenberg production years ago, while teaching a sixth-grade Hebrew school class about the Holocaust. He noticed a footnote about Wallenberg in the class textbook and was stunned. 'I had a solid Jewish education and never learned anything about him,' he said. 'If he saved more Jews than any other organization or government, why don’t people know about him?' He called Needleman, his longtime writing partner, and told her, 'We have to tell this story. I don’t want my kids’ idol to be Britney Spears when there are incredible people to look up to.'

Through their shared background at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in Manhattan, the writers discovered Rosenbluth, whom they credit with creating an exhilarating score.

'Benjy’s music is so lush and beautiful,' said Holzman. 'His melodies are so sweet. He really captured the epic nature of the story with the music.'

That the project has taken so many years to bring to fruition is in large part because the writers aimed to tell the story without bending historical facts. They spent months researching Wallenberg’s life. They even held readings for survivors who were saved by Wallenberg to ensure authenticity.

A group of 'Wallenberg Jews' attended a 2004 reading at Manhattan’s Symphony Space and admitted that they had initially been nervous the play wouldn’t be respectful to their history. But the play moved them. 'An elderly woman stood up after the reading and exclaimed, ‘That was me you just portrayed when he pulled me off the death march.’' Someone else said that she saw herself in a scene that depicted Wallenberg creating fake passports for Jews. Wallenberg’s niece came in from France for a reading and then met with the cast to give them a better sense of who the characters were because she knew them. 'We heard the stories directly from the people who experienced it,' said Rosenbluth. 'That was mind-blowing.'

Their input had a considerable impact. 'We changed large portion of the script based on what they told us,' said Rosenbluth. And every Wallenberg Jew who saw the final show in rehearsals said they were grateful their story was being told with respect, accuracy, and heartfelt emotion, he said.

The show’s producers hope to bring it Broadway. But in the meantime, they are reaching out to schools across the tri-state area to arrange for students to see the show, which has been funded in part through the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to publicize and promote the good works of Wallenberg and other heroes of the Holocaust.

Like other members of the creative team behind Wallenberg, Rosenbluth has family members who were killed in the Holocaust. But he doesn’t have any qualms that the production would trivialize the memory of the six million. Yet when the director initially asked him to write music for a character portraying Adolf Eichmann, he balked. 'I said, 'How can evil sing?' He looked to opera as a model, since evil is widely portrayed in opera in a powerful manner.

How does he work by day at Holy Name Medical Center as a radiation oncologist and manage to write the score for a large-scale production? 'I don’t sleep much,' he quips, adding that much of his composing takes place after around 9 p.m. 'I’ve written songs between seeing patients. My nurse can probably hum all the songs to the show because I walk around the hospital singing.'

Rosenbluth, who is Orthodox, said he hasn’t encountered much conflict in being a composer and keeping the Shabbat. 'My go-to person is Dudu Fisher. They wanted him to sing for the queen of England and he said he would do it but never on a Friday night. I’ve worked with non-Jews and non-religious and anti-religious Jews. I feel if people see you are very serious about your religion, they respect it. But that means you have to be shomer kashruth on every level — not only watching what you eat but watching how you act, what words come out of your mouth. Even the most hardened anti-religious person respects someone who stands by his principles.'

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, a special performance will be given at 8 p.m. in observance of Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish Nazi attack on Nov. 9-10, 1938, which many scholars consider the beginning of the Holocaust. The show will run until Nov. 21.

For more information about the show and to hear some of the music, go to

For tickets, call (877) 548-3237 or visit" (source)

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