This is an updated version of a story I wrote last year about the musical “Wallenberg.” That show will get its world premiere at the White Plains Performing Arts Center starting Thursday. Read my interview with star Scott Mikita here.
The first time he heard about Raoul Wallenberg, Laurence Holzman was teaching Hebrew school to sixth-graders in Riverdale in 2003.
“It read: ‘In 1944, Raoul Wallenberg went to Budapest and saved over 100,000 Jews, more than were rescued by any other individual, organization or government during the entire war. And in Amsterdam, the Frank family. …’
“I thought to myself, ‘If that first sentence is true, why do I — who went to Solomon Schechter and had a good, solid Jewish education — not know who he was?”
So Holzman did what he always does when he learns something new: He picked up the phone and called his longtime collaborator, Felicia Needleman in Larchmont.
Holzman and Needleman write musicals for a living. They won the prestigious 2006 Kleban Award for most-promising librettists, and have been a team since they met in modern-drama class at Columbia in the mid-’80s.
Needleman didn’t know about Wallenberg, either.
“So we started to read and, by now, we’ve probably read 40 or 50 books about him,” Holzman says, in his Dobbs Ferry home. “And the more we read, still, the more we find out about him.”
What they know is that Wallenberg, the heir of one of Sweden’s wealthiest banking families, went to Budapest, Hungary, in July 1944 to rescue Jews as a member of the Swedish Legation.
“He saw people dying in the streets and he became James Bond,” Holzman says without a hint of hyperbole.
Holzman and Needleman turned that reading into “Wallenberg: A Musical Drama,” which will have its world premiere at the White Plains Performing Arts Center tonight.
They typically write musical comedies — “The Jerusalem Syndrome,” “That Time of the Year” — but this is serious fare, with music by Benjamin Rosenbluth.
“What fascinated us is there was no reason for him to do it,” Holzman says.
“It wasn’t like he was living in Hungary at the time and his best friend’s family was getting attacked,” Needleman says. “He chose to go from this really comfortable home into this world of danger.”
For six months, Wallenberg used every diplomatic tool at his disposal to save Jews in Budapest, the last outpost of European Jewry in the waning days of World War II.
Knowing the Nazis responded well to official-looking documents — and having run out of passports to free the Jews — Wallenberg fabricated “schutzpasses,” phony papers declaring the bearers to be Swedish citizens, to keep them from being deported. It didn’t matter that they were fake; they looked real.
With American money, he bought safe houses to shelter Jews under the Swedish flag.
When he learned that the Nazis would tie three Jews together, shoot the one in the middle and dump them in the river, Wallenberg hired excellent swimmers to fish the survivors out to safety.
“We met one of the swimmers,” Holzman says.
Wallenberg also went onto deportation trains and removed Jews who were moments from being sent to death camps, claiming they were Swedish citizens.
In the process, Wallenberg, who was 32 at the time, went toe-to-toe with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of Jewish extermination who would also issue orders for Wallenberg’s assassination. Those attempts failed.
When the Nazis planned to bomb the Budapest Ghetto, Wallenberg’s appeals prompted a general to call off the bombing, saving 70,000 Jews.
But “Wallenberg” is not a Holocaust musical, they say.
“It’s a story of how one man can make a difference,” he says. “It’s a story of hope.”
When the Soviets liberated Budapest in January 1945, Wallenberg went to meet with them to discuss the fate of the Jews. He was never heard from again.
One might think that the mystery surrounding his disappearance was tailor-made for a musical drama, but Holzman and Needleman mention that fact only in passing in their musical.
“We didn’t do it because he’s missing,” Holzman says. “That’s not what intrigued us. What intrigued us was that someone could, in six months time at 32 years old, accomplish what he did.”
“Wallenberg: A Musical Drama” White Plains Performing Arts Center, 11 City Place, White Plains. Oct. 28 through Nov. 21. $39 for previews; $49 starting Oct. 30. 877-548-3237. Go to the White Plains Performing Arts Center website or or the website for Wallenberg the Musical.
Want to learn more about Wallenberg. Go to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation website.
Photo by Joe Larese/The Journal News: Felicia Needleman and Laurence Holzman at White Plains Performing Arts Center.