Encore! Educational Theatre Company will bring the thrilling story of romance, drama and intrigue of the NILI spy ring to life in its forthcoming production of “Intrepid,” set to open at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit Shmuel, Jerusalem on June 7-8, 2017. The members of NILI played a major part in early Zionist history by conveying military information about the Ottoman Turks to the British army, resulting in General Allenby conquering Eretz Yisrael in 1917. This musical version of the events, written by Robert Binder and composed by Paul Salter, brings the events to the stage in an exciting way.
Fred Casden recently talked to the author about “Intrepid” and its affect on contemporary audiences:
FC: The first question a lot of people would have is what possessed you and Paul (Salter) to create a new musical production? How and why did you and Paul Salter create Intrepid?
RB: This is a project that has been several years in gestation. A number of years ago, I made several visits to Zichron Yaakov for a project I was doing at the time, and I visited the Aaronsohn house. I was very much taken with the story of Sarah Aaronsohn and especially that of Avshalom Feinberg being buried in the desert and his grave being identified fifty years later thanks to a tree that had grown from the dates he carried in his pocket.
We met with a patron of ours, the late Sam Sylvester, who told us that he too was intrigued by the story and had one time written a film script that he was unable to sell. But we both had the same idea of starting the story with the discovery of the palm tree in the desert. That led us to do some more research and writing on the project, and after Sam passed away a couple of years ago, we spoke to his family about creating a living memorial to him by writing this story as a serious musical.
The Sylvester family very kindly commissioned us to do so, and that’s where we are right now, writing and producing what I’d call an opera, a serious musical, in the way Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera or the works of Stephen Sondheim would be described.
FC: So what is Intrepid about?
RB: The story is a marvelous, thrilling chapter of early Zionist history, the fact that a group of young Zionists, who had grown up in Eretz Yisrael, children of the First Aliyah, were determined to drive the Turks from the country and help the British conquer it and establish a Jewish homeland, which in fact they did, even though individually they came to rather sticky ends. In this particular story, there’s the intrigue of the spy ring, there’s the romance of the Aaronsohn sisters with Avshalom Feinberg, there’s the mystery and the surprise of finding the pine tree in the desert. It’s really a very complex story. I have to admit that after doing a lot of research and writing on the topic, I had to condense the number of characters. So yes, there are people and incidents left out, but I think you call it artistic license. You can’t have it all on the stage at any one time. It would just be overwhelming and too confusing for an audience. The only thing in the script that is not based on an historical event is a little romantic touch we added at the suggestion of Sam’s widow, Carol Sylvester. She said that she had read somewhere that Rivka Aaronsohn, the fiancée of Avshalom Feinberg, gave him a brass button, which he carried with him as a good luck charm. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it reminded me of the scene in Peter Pan, when Peter first meets Wendy. She wants to give him a kiss, and he doesn’t know what that is. He thinks it is a something like a thimble or a button. So he and Wendy exchange a thimble and a button. When Rivka and Avshalom part, they exchange a button and a flower. And the button is found on Avshalom’s body fifty year later. His body was re-interred in the military cemetery on Har Hertzl. Rivka Aaronsohn was there, having waited fifty years for her lover to return. And in presenting the flag from his coffin to Ms. Aaronsohn, the also returned the button to her as a token of love.
FC: I know you did an earlier piece, The Keys to the City, which I believe is about events from the same period of time.
RB: Yes it is. It was written to mark the anniversary of General Allenby’s entrance into the city of Jerusalem during Chanukah in 1917 and how there were several surrender ceremonies until the “keys” were finally delivered. That started out as a combination of actual historical events that I’ve researched and personal stories of individuals who were involved at the time, and how their paths crossed. That piece is what we call a chamber opera. It’s about an hour, an hour and a quarter work, which we produce at the Bible Lands Museum and the Khan Theater. I hope we’ll be able to bring it out again when it will be the centenary of Allenby’s entrance.
FC: So you obviously feel some connection to this particular period of time in the history of the yishuv?
RB: That is true. You know I’m very old-fashioned, and I have enough trouble with the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first century. So this fits very comfortably into my framework.
FC: How do you think audiences today will respond; will they find this particular time and these particular incidents relevant to their lives and relevant to Israeli politics today?
RB: I think they’ll find it very significant, seeing the colossal pioneering efforts of these young people, who against incalculable odds, were determined to achieve their goal of a Jewish nation. I still find that stirring, and I think it should be thrilling to our audiences. I think that there is enough for everybody in the show: the romance, the intrigue, and the drama, with a tiny bit of humor here and there. But it’s a very serious tale that is so important to us today.
FC: In terms of the actual creation of the show, how did that work? Did you write the script and the lyrics first and then give it to Paul?
RB: Everyone wants to know what comes first, the music or the words. I first produced an outline of the script and discussed it with Paul. When he was satisfied with the dramatic outline, then I started to write lyrics for various songs and sent them to him. Sometimes he sent them back and we’d have to rewrite phrases or fit phrases to a musical notation that he had. It’s a give and take process. Basically, the words come first and are then set by the composer. Paul has written the most fabulous music for this show. The score is absolutely wonderful.
FC: I’ve read the script. Of course I can’t get a sense of the music from that alone.
RB: The music really fits the script, and the period, and the characters.
And sometimes it goes the other way. For example, there are performers who play characters who simply disappear. They are only in Act. I, or only in Act II. So Paul suggested we create something for them. So expanding on their characters, we wrote numbers that Paul suggested, and I found words to. And that’s called collaboration
FC: In reading the script, I noticed that there are a very large number of characters involved, and a large number of characters who have to sing solos, or duets, or ensemble pieces. It’s much like Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers in terms of the large number of principal roles. Did you have particular performers in mind for certain characters?
RB: Yes, we did for the leads; there are five major parts for which we had people in mind. All the other characters come in and out and play the British or the Egyptians or the Turks, what have you. We have a cast of eighteen performers, all of whom are top caliber. Most of them have performed with us a number of times in Encore! productions. We know their individual strengths, and we’re writing to fit their particular vocal and dramatic talents. I should also mention that, as usual, we will have a top-notch orchestra for Paul to conduct.
FC: Did you have any difficulty in convincing any of the performers you had in mind to participate? Most of the them are quite busy, and for them to come in for what might be considered a relatively small part… What I’m asking is, did you have trouble casting the show?
RB: Thank G-d, we did not have any trouble. Once the performers heard the music and read the outline of the script, they were very excited about being part of it. And I would hope they see themselves as part of a major event in Israeli culture.
FC: You’re hoping that once the three performances have been done at the Hirsch Theater, you’ll be able to perform it in other venues throughout the country?
RB: We originally expected to have the premiere performance in Zichron Yaakov, but unfortunately that fell through. We’re not giving up on the idea of playing it in Zichron, where it belongs, and in other venues throughout the country as well
Certainly we do hope so. It would be a pity after all this work for it to be confined to just these three performances. It deserves to travel widely. Incidentally, we’re doing the show without formal scenery. Our set designer, Roxane Goodkin-Levy, is painting a series of designs to represent the various locales: the desert, the Aaronsohn house, Cairo, Sara’s grave, and so forth, and these will be used as projections to set the scene each time we go to another place. The show is very portable; we can carry it anywhere.
FC: As opposed to some of the previous Encore! productions that required an enormous number of people schlepping large, heavy scenery!
RB: We’ve had excellent stage crews!
FC: A few more questions. Let’s say that after Intrepid plays in Jerusalem, your phone rings, and someone is excited and offers to fund another new production. What would you like to do?
RB: We would jump at the opportunity. We have a lot of ideas. We’ve been working on some things for a few years. But they all take a commission to make it possible. It’s not something that we can do in our free time, for nothing. But, please G-d… This is one of the reasons we established Encore! a decade ago. We wanted to do, in addition to the familiar works, new works and pieces that belong in Israel.
As an aside, several years ago, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, staged a production of The Death of Klinghoffer, about the murder of a wheelchair- bound American Jew by members of the PLO. Although there were great protests, and I myself wrote to the head of the Met, they not only persisted in producing it, which I consider a major Chillul Hashem, they also prevented protesters from approaching the opera house when it was being performed. I don’t understand why there is room in this world for works that are so supportive of our enemies and not of our own position and all that we have accomplished here. So, please G-d, we may not get to The Met (although wouldn’t mind!), but I’d like to get to other opera houses.
FC: Looking ahead, if someone were to approach you with a new musical – assuming it was appropriate – would you be interested?
RB: If it was something we thought would be worthwhile producing, and it was something we could properly cast and present and we could raise the money to put it on….
FC: Last question. What do you see as the future for Encore!
RB: I would very much like to see Encore! continue as it has, producing both the “favorites” and the new pieces. Perhaps one of each during the course of the year. I know there are difficulties; it’s ambitious, it requires funding. We always need donors to help us through. We can’t rely on only ticket sales and advertising.
The difficulty of doing something new is that some people won’t come to something new and unknown: “I’ve never heard of it.” On the other hand, if we do something that’s familiar, say The Mikado, some of our audience will say, “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” How do we get people to come? We can only hope that our repertoire appeals to them and they know our reputation, that we have a solid record of hits. And they should come and enjoy it.
FC: If they are savvy enough to come, they will definitely enjoy!