On January 29, 2017, BroadwayCon presented FIRST LOOKS, a glimpse at the Broadway spring season. While many of the upcoming musicals presented premieres of musical numbers, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel captivated that audience with the story of how she fell in love with theatre at the age of 15 and what it feels like to make her Broadway debut with Indecent 50 years later. These are her words:
How many people in this room are writing plays? May I see your hands? How many people in this room want to write a play? Here’s what I want to say before I start the talk: please please write. It’s the most important gift you can give us in this country right now.
I want to start with just a little personal story about how I worked my way to spending the last glorious seven years with [director] Rebecca Taichman, this remarkable cast, these extraordinary musicians and choreographer, creating Indecent.
When I was 17 years old, my mother discovered love letters from a girlfriend to me, and that was the last time I stayed under my mother’s roof. Somehow or other, I scrambled my way in through school, into a graduate program to study theatre. In my first year there, a teacher said to me, “You know, there’s a play called The God of Vengeance…you might want to read that play.”
So I rushed to the library, where I found an out-of-print play, with yellow pages, and I couldn’t sit down, I was so excited. I read this play, written in 1906, the first play written by a 24-year-old married man. And the story is a simple one: it concerns a family, a father, in Poland, a Jewish father, who is running a brothel in his basement. And with the money from his prostitutes, he lives above the brothel, and he is trying to bribe his daughter’s way into proper Jewish society. He uses the money to bribe an engagement to a rabbi’s son. He has a Torah inscribed. But his pure Jewish daughter falls in love with a prostitute downstairs. The play doesn’t end happily. I might say the whole world explodes at the end of this play. But the important thing for me is that at age 22 in my search for who would I be in this world… as a woman who loves women, I read a second act that made me cry as I read it on my feet in the library. The most beautiful love scene I have ever heard or seen, written by a 24-year-old married man, between these two women. It was indelible. It changed my life in terms of what I thought men and women could write.
Alright, now let’s flash forward: 2010. I get a phone call from Bill Rausch at Oregon Shakespeare, and Rebecca Taichman…if you haven’t seen Rebecca Taichman’s work, you are in for an incredible treat. I’ve been watching this woman for a decade. And every time I see something she has done on stage I hold my breath. Interestingly enough, not only is this my Broadway debut, but its hers. She’s an exquisite artist. She has been obsessed with The God of Vengeance since she was in grad school and she couldn’t let it go, so she called me and said, “Would you be interested in doing a play about The God of Vengeance?” It took me less than ten seconds to say yes. And so began this journey.
Seven years. Sundance. We started it in New Haven. We brought it to La Jolla. Last year at the Vineyard. We wrote a play about the journey of God of Vengeance, and our play is called Indecent. I will tell you why in a second.
It starts with a stage manager, literally rising from the ashes, to tell us the story of the troupe that produced The God of Vengeance all over the world. And he resurrects the dead members of the troupe to sing and dance and perform for us. And we travel with that troupe from the very start of this play written by the 24-year-old playwright, in its first reading, everyone in the room, the Yiddish writers, his mentors, said: “Burn the play. This is an incendiary play. Anti-Semites will gather around this play. This is a stone that will hurt the Jewish community.”
And the young man didn’t listen. Went to Germany. Found a very important actor. They put it on stage there, and lo and behold, The God of Vengeance, his first play, becomes an international hit, and travels all over Europe. Controversial, yes, but a hit.
We go with the troupe and we follow them through as they emigrate to the United States. On the Lower East Side, they present the play. And someone gets the great idea. “It’s such a hit in Yiddish. It’s such a hit in New York. Crowds are flocking to it.” Someone gets the bright idea: What if we translate the play to English and present it on Broadway? Which they do.
On opening night, the cast is arrested by the vice squad for presenting a play which is “immoral, obscene and indecent,” and the whole play is shut down and closed. And that may be the reason why we’ve never heard of The God of Vengeance. It was also the first time that two women ever kissed on stage in New York.
Yes. We might not blink now, but back then…
We continue forward with the story of this, the trial, the actors. Some of them, their careers were ruined. But the little stage manager refuses to stop with his love for The God of Vengeance. And so he decides, America with its anti-Semitism, anti-immigration policies. They closed the borders at Ellis Island to Jewish refugees—does this sound familiar?—who were fleeing East Europe because of massacres and pogroms. He thought, “I can’t do art in a country that closes its borders. That builds walls.” So the stage manager returns home to Lodz, a city where he came from in Poland, and starts his own theatre.
Flash forward, this isn’t the end of the play, but we’re with him in the ghetto. The Nazis, when they took the Jewish artists, the Jewish residents, and put them into the ghetto decreed that no plays could be done. Did you know that? No theatre could be performed. Because they felt that if you took theatre away from people, they would become demoralized. We would lose our sense of identity. And so we follow our little troupe as they perform the love scene between these two women in Lodz ghetto.
Now, that’s not the end of the play. Our play goes on. But for me it’s a very pertinent time to look at this play. To talk to you about the issues we are in the midst of right now. You might say—and I think we as Americans have to say—that right now we are all Muslim.
This was a play in 1906 that said we are all lesbian and we are all Jews. This is a time for us to come together. And not only enjoy the entertainment and the uplift of theatre, but to remind ourselves that theatre must be the dog that bites the hand that feeds us. Because theatre tells the truth, and we need the truth right now. Not alt-facts, but the truth.
Lemml says in the play, several times, he’s a 17-year-old tailor…when he sees his first play. I don’t know how many of you saw your first play in high school and fell in love, but that’s what happened to Lemml, and he says, “This play. It changed my life.” I know exactly how he feels. I fell in love when I was 15 years of age, with theatre. I believe that theatre is our best tool for resistance and resiliency. I walked into a room with a high school teacher and I fell in love with theatre. Theatre changed my life. I’m hoping that you will come and join us on our journey. Fifty years later from the day I walked into my high school drama class, I’m finally getting to step on a Broadway stage. It’s an honor. Thank you so much.