Before he got the call to play him, Scott Mikita knew little about Raoul Wallenberg.
“I knew he had done something to save the Jewish population somewhere,” Mikita says.
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Starting Thursday, audiences will get to know the World War II hero through Mikita’s performance in “Wallenberg,” a new musical drama getting its world premiere at the White Plains Performing Arts Center.
Mikita leads a cast of 26 in the epic musical, which has a book and lyrics by the Kleban Award-winning team of Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman and a score by Benjamin Rosenbluth.
“Wallenberg” is the first endeavor in a season of new musicals and plays to be presented at the refocused venue in the City Center mall in downtown White Plains.
Holzman, who lives in Dobbs Ferry, is WPPAC’s new executive director; Needleman, of Larchmont, its literary manager; Annette Jolles, the venue’s artistic director, directs “Wallenberg.”
To join Jolles’ huge cast, Mikita had to get a leave from Broadway’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” in which he has appeared — in various roles — for nearly a decade. He was granted the leave in a matter of hours, a timetable that is typically unheard of.
“I auditioned on a Wednesday between shows and they called me the next day to offer me the part,” says the native of sububan Chicago, in a short break from rehearsal in Manhattan.
“Annette and Felicia and Laurence have done so much research and have been so deep into it for so long, they’re constantly saying ‘Did you know? Did you know? Did you know?’” Mikita says. “It’s like having a living textbook about Raoul Wallenberg.”
In July 1944, 32-year-old Wallenberg — heir to one of Sweden’s most prominent banking families — went to Hungary as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps.
For the next six months, he worked to save Jews in Budapest, one of the last remaining outposts of European Jewry.
With no more Swedish passports to issue, Wallenberg invented “schutz-passes,” phony papers that identified the bearers as Swedish citizens, saving them from deportation to German concentration camps.
He bought safe houses and sheltered Jews under the Swedish flag and convinced authorities to cancel the bombing of the Budapest ghetto, saving an estimated 70,000 lives. Historians suggest he saved 100,000 lives in his six months in the city.
When the Soviets took control of Budapest in January 1945, Wallenberg met with them to discuss the fate of the city’s Jews.
He was never heard from again.
While his disappearance is compelling — it has been the subject of a television movie and many books — it’s not the part of the story covered in this musical. “Wallenberg” is about six months that saved 100,000 people.
“He was in the import-export business, mostly pickled herring and smoked salmon,” Mikita says. “But the skills that his work gave him were as a negotiator. He was able to instantly size someone up, see what their strengths and weaknesses were, so he knew how to approach.
“Wallenberg” includes several historically accurate figures: Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of Jewish extermination; Hungarian leader Admiral Miklos Horthy; Gabor Kemény of the fascist Arrow Cross Party; and his wife, Elizabeth Kemény, who aided Wallenberg.
“The story is not ‘Look how great this sainted Wallenberg was,’” says the man who’ll play him. “The story is ‘One man came into this hopeless situation and by inspiring hope through his actions, other people began to get hope and began to see that they can do something as well.
“I think it’s a timeless theme and certainly something that we can hear over and over again today.”
After “Wallenberg” ends its White Plains run, Mikita will report back to “Phantom” for a Monday night show.
“It’s good in this business to be busy,” he says with a smile.
“Wallenberg” at White Plains Performing Arts Center runs through Nov. 21. $39 for previews Oct. 28 and 29; $49 after that. 877-548-3237. 11 City Place, White Plains, 914-328-1600. www.wppac.com.
Photo by Tania Savayan/The Journal News: Scott Mikita of Stamford, Conn., will play Raoul Wallenberg in the musical “Wallenberg” at the new White Plains Performing Arts Center. He is photographed during a break from rehearsal at Ripley Grier studios in Manhattan.