Diary of Anne Frank Musical Controversy

February 5, 2008 12:24:55 PM PST
A Spanish-language musical based on the diary of Anne Frank opens this month in Madrid amid criticism from her last living relative that it trivializes the Holocaust.

"Anne Frank - a Song to Life" is supported by the Anne Frank House, the Amsterdam foundation that runs a museum that includes the attic where the Jewish teenager and her family hid from the Nazis for 25 months during World War II, before she died in a concentration camp.

The $4.5 million production is the brainchild of director Rafael Alvero, who has been working on it for a decade. It opens Feb. 28 for a scheduled six-month run.

Alvero and the Anne Frank House acknowledged that some people might have qualms about seeing the life of Frank depicted in a genre generally associated with cheerful, upbeat shows. But ultimately this work is about paying tribute to a vibrant, brave and thoughtful young person and using music as a vehicle to promote racial and religious tolerance, said Alvero, a movie producer.

"It is emotional, within the sadness and the happiness of the life of Anne Frank," he said. "I have no doubt that it will be educational and entertaining."

When Frank's life was first taken onto the stage in the 1950s, some critics also called that project inappropriate but such adaptations turned out to be useful, said Kleis Broekhuizen, managing director of the Anne Frank House.

The Spanish play is another such effort and "gives us a great opportunity to go on with our educational efforts," Broekhuizen said.

But Frank's last living relative, 82-year-old Buddy Elias, is livid. He is president of a Swiss-based charitable organization called the Anne Frank-Fonds, which owns the rights to her diary, and does not back the musical at all.

"How can I support this when my cousin Anne Frank, who died in a concentration camp, who had a terrible destiny, is used for a happy musical with singing and dancing and I don't know what else?" Elias said in an interview from the foundation's headquarters in Basle, Switzerland.

Elias has not seen the show, and turned down an invitation from Alvero to come to Madrid to do so. It is not about money or the rights to Frank's story. He said the whole idea is simply inappropriate.

"It is a musical about a Holocaust situation," Elias said. "It is not a subject to make a musical, an entertaining musical of it."

Legally, Elias cannot do anything because the play is only an adaptation of the diary. He has a copy of the libretto and says that apparently it contains nothing taken verbatim.

Alvero and company said theirs is the first musical ever to be based on the diary.

They said "Yours, Anne," a play that was performed Off-Broadway in 1985, was not really a musical even though it did have songs, and that the Spanish production is based more strictly on the diary.

Elias said he has no problem with the earlier work, which he described as a play with chamber music. "That was not a musical. There were songs in it but not happy or funny songs. It was done with great tact and understanding," said Elias, an actor.

The Spanish musical will be staged at the Teatro Haagen-Dazs Calderon, a 90-year-old building that is now co-sponsored by the American ice cream maker and sports a full-blown ice cream shop in the lobby.

At Monday's presentation, the full cast performed two scenes from the musical. One showed a positively giddy Frank flirting with a suitor and receiving a diary as a present on her 13th birthday. "I hope to be able to tell it all to you," she says to the book, clutching it to her chest. In another scene, she and her family listen hungrily to the radio for news of Allied progress in the war.

Frank, played by 13-year-old Cuban-born actress Isabella Castillo, is overwhelmed with optimism by the prospect of freedom, and bursts into song: "I am sick of being cooped up. I would like to be a seagull, to fly away and not come back."