He saved more Jews than Oskar Schindler and Chiune Sugihara put together, but the story of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued 100,000 Jews from the Nazis, is less well known. Now comes the premiere full production of the musical drama “Wallenberg,” which opens next week at the White Plains Performing Arts Center, which its creators hope will win wider recognition for one of the most daring and successful of all the gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews.
Directed by Annette Jolles, “Wallenberg” is written by Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman, with music by Benjamin Rosenbluth. Starring Scott Mikita in the title role, the 26-character epic focuses on Wallenberg’s Herculean efforts to save the Jews of Budapest. “Wallenberg,” which first ran at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006, includes such anthems as “A Million Tomorrows,” about the lives of the survivors’ descendants.
Toward the end of the war, after the overwhelming defeat of the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad, the Nazis made a final push by invading Hungary.
After deporting half a million Jews from the Hungarian provinces to Auschwitz, the Hungarian allies of the Nazis, known as the Arrow Cross, prepared to wipe out the Jewish population of the Hungarian capital. Wallenberg, who was commissioned to represent the Swedish government in Hungary, rushed to Budapest. He issued thousands of false Swedish passports, “hired” hundreds of Jews as his employees at the embassy, turned 32 rented buildings into safe houses, and jumped onto the roof of a train that was departing for Auschwitz to hand out passes through the windows.
Holzman and Needleman, who met as fellow English majors at Columbia, have collaborated on many musicals, including ”Suddenly Hope,” “The Jerusalem Syndrome,” and a popular holiday show, “That Time of the Year,” which will follow “Wallenberg” at the WPPAC’s mainstage theater. While Needleman said that she was struck by the James Bond-quality of Wallenberg’s exploits, she calls him an “ordinary person who rose to the occasion, and never saw himself as a hero.”
Wallenberg’s own fate remains a mystery. While the Russians claimed to have executed him in a gulag in 1947, numerous sightings of him have been reported, most recently in a Soviet prison in 1987. Meanwhile, interest in Wallenberg has mushroomed. Kjell Grede’s Swedish film, “Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg,” debuted in 1990. A lavish opera about Wallenberg by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur opened in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, in 2007. And statues of Wallenberg have gone up in London, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Los Angeles, and other cities. “Wallenberg” is the latest tribute to the daring Swede.
“I don’t think of it as a Holocaust musical,” Holzman said. “I think of it as the story of one person who rose to the occasion and made a difference. We want our children to see what a real hero can be.”
“Wallenberg” runs through Nov. 21 at the White Plains Performing Arts Center, 11 City Place in White Plains. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. There are special performances on Thursday, Nov. 4 at 2 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. and Thursday, Nov. 18 at 10:30 a.m. For tickets, $39-49, call Ticket Fusion at (877) 548-3237.