I don't know what you call it," James Lapine admits, pausing a beat. "I guess it's that horrible word 'revisal.' There are some changes in it, but it's basically the same play."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Sunday in the Park with George is referring to an opus which took the 1955 Pulitzer, Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Given the laundry list of trophies that the drama knocked off in its day, it's not easy to imagine a new and improved edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, but that is precisely what Lapine is directing at the Music Box Theatre.
"The play had to be made stage worthy for 1997," he contends. "That is not to cast aspersions on the earlier production. It's just a different era now. The war is not as present in people's lives as it was then. Plus, there will be hordes of people coming to this day who know nothing about the Holocaust. It's a very different kind of temperature for doing the piece."
But more than a desire to bring a 45-year-old play up to speed has sparked its second Broadway coming. Quite simply, its primary source changed and that fact dictated changes right down the line like rows of toppling dominoes. When producers David Stone and Amy Nederlander-Case (who are producing with Jon B. Platt, Jujamcyn Theaters and Hal Luftig) read in 1995 that Doubleday was restoring previously excised material and publishing the definitive edition of the diary, they believed the original drama could be seen in a luminous new light, which would make it even more meaningful to modern theatre audiences.
"We wanted to deepen the Jewish themes, to confront the Holocaust more directly," says Stone. "If you compare the original text to this, it's very different. The structure is similar, but I'd say a good percentage of the lines are new. People who haven't seen it in 40 years will say, 'Gosh, that's so much more moving than I remembered it,' without knowing specifically what we changed."
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, published posthumously in 1952, was an instant best seller, chronicling the triumph of the human spirit as it manifested itself in the claustrophobic attic of an Amsterdam spice factory where two Jewish families and a dour dentist spent their last two years of freedom hiding from Nazis. The cramped quarters of the piece as well as its insistent heartbeat lent itself to an effective stage dramatization, executed three years later by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. The inevitable Oscar-nominated movie version, directed by the meticulous George Stevens, followed in 1959. Since then, New York has seen only one revival of the play Off-Broadway, starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.
Now, at this late date, it turns out that there was more to the story. The original diary written by the teen-age Anne was recovered by Miep Gies one of the people who had sheltered the eight Jews from the swastika and she, says Nederlander-Case, "held on to it, hoping, when Anne returned, she'd give it to her. When she found out Anne's father, Otto, was the only survivor, she gave the diary to him. He read it and felt it important that it be published, but he also felt it necessary to do a little editing on the diary beforehand.
"You have to keep in mind, when the editing was done, there weren't even scars yet there were wounds, wide open, from what had happened and Otto Frank was sensitive to that. He took out things Anne had said that were not particularly flattering to people they knew. If these people weren't alive, their relatives were. He took out some of the contentiousness behind her relationship with her mother. It wasn't necessary, again, to the importance of the story. Anne was very personal about discovering her own sexuality, which, once again, you didn't talk about then. He took that out and her ambition as a woman. She was very ambitious as an adolescent. She wanted to write, to make a difference in the world. It was these types of things, and what we're doing, really, is putting them back.
"When Mr. Frank died I think, in 1980 he bequeathed the diary in its entirety to the Dutch government, and there was a complete analysis done of the diary. Then, Doubleday decided to publish the diary pretty much in its entirety. People will ask us, 'If you're doing a revival, how are you updating it?' We're not updating it. I think of it, really, as unwrapping a story."
Given the hallowed turf being gingerly traversed, it's fortunate that the producers were able to find a playwright uniquely qualified to do this theatrical unwrapping: The works of Wendy Kesselman frequently deal with not only female adolescence (My Sister in This House, The Executioner's Daughter) but also the Holocaust (I Love You, I Love You Not). So, with the full blessing of the playwrights' estate and the Anne Frank estate, she set out to mine new humanity in one of World War II's most abidingly poignant dramas.
The producers were likewise lucky to line up Natalie Portman, the 16-year-old film actress, for the play's title role in their first reading. "She came in and did the reading," remembers Lapine, "and I thought, 'Wow! We don't have to look any further for that part.'" The stellar cast surrounding her include George Hearn and Sophie Hayden as her parents, Rachel Miner as her sister, Harris Yulin and Linda Lavin as the other Jewish couple, Jonathan Kaplan as their son, Austin Pendleton as the cranky dentist, Jessica Walling as Miep Gies and Philip Goodwin as Mr. Kraler.
Portman admits she has a passion for the part. "I've read the diary several times, and we went to Amsterdam twice to the house where the family hid," she says. "The second time we went, I met Miep and Anne's cousin. They were really helpful because they gave me a feeling of who she actually was. They showed me photos of her from a family album. It was heartbreaking because Anne is always smiling. She has this mischievous grin on her face. It's touching."
Even in a yellowing old photo, you can see the legacy of a girl who wrote, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."
-- By Harry Haun