This weekend I was privileged to be able to listen to the as yet unreleased concept album of a new British Musical written by Giles Howe (with additional music by Katy Lipson), with book by both Giles Howe and Roberto Trippini.
Titled, 'Soviet Zion', the musical charts the story of two fictional families who travel to the south eastern edge of Siberia in 1939, in order to try and make a new life in the newly formed Autonomous Jewish State (designated thus by the Soviets in 1928) which was heralded as a new and Soviet Jerusalem. In fact, The Jewish Autonomous Region still exists to this day - although I had never heard about it and had to do some quick internet research - and despite the huge decline in Jewish inhabitants (currently less than 1%), still remains the only area under Jewish jurisdiction outside of Israel.
The area (Oblast in Russian), was little less than a wasteland, with harsh and unforgiving weather conditions (probably why the Soviets were so magnanimous in the first place...?), but for thousands of displaced Jews looking for safety and sanctuary after the First World War and the build-up to the Second, it must have felt like a prayer answered. Yes, the challenges and realities of this promised utopia were far from what was imagined, but many families did stay and make their lives there. This musical follows the trials of two such families, who not only have to cope with a new land and all that that encompasses, but they must also deal with the Soviet government, their 'spies' and 'informers', and the Soviet ways of dealing with 'problems'; something the Musical very sensibly doesn't shy away from.
On my intital listen to the 2-hour + album, I felt that it was a very personal and intimate piece of writing coming from the heart; and yet, despite much of the musical's bombast, it didn't really reach out and open itself to me in the same way as my first lisening to, say, 'Les Miserables'. Perhaps I was missing something, and so I indulged myself with a second listening.
As a concept, I like this musical and idea very much, although I have to say that in its present state, I fear it will attract only a niche audience. My rationale for this is as follows:
First, the Musical is very Jewish. Well, yes, of course it is, I hear you say... and what about 'Fiddler On The Roof', or Schwartz's "follow-up" to this, 'Rags'? Well, that is exactly my point. 'Fiddler' is so well known and beloved, that anyone else writing a Jewish musical will always have to have it to be compared with. And 'Fiddler' has the most wonderful, toe-tapping melodies, a great klezmer feel, and although undeniably Jewish, it also is extremely Western too; and therefore accessible.
With 'Soviet Zion', the accessibility of the show is its main downfall. As much as I like many of the songs, there aren't that many truly memorable melodies which can be hummed on your way out of the theatre, or which could be used as a leit-motif throughout. The two songs which for me had the biggest emotional impact and had the most potential were (I don't know the titles) "This Is What You Do To Me" (?) and the full chorus anthem which follows it.
Second, the musical is too Jewish in places. The denouement has two long solo songs - one a soprano solo, which is followed immediately by a tenor solo - both of which are completely incomprehensible since they are sung in what I imagine is Yiddish. The enigmatic and always optimistic caustic Jewish humour has been kept throughout, which is a nice touch, and many of the Jewish traditions and ways of life are mentioned and explained (mostly), which keeps the whole centred, even opting to use accents and dialect for the separate characters. However I do wonder if even this isn't a little too much in order for the musical to survive commercially.
My third reason is the music itself. For me it simply cannot decide what genre or style it wants to be. Sometimes I hear Grand Opera, other times it sounds like Stravinsky or Shostakovich, whilst at various other times throughout I hear music reminiscent of Marc Blitzstein, Sondheim, and even Richard Rodgers, all wrapped in a klezmer blanket.
'Soviet Zion' is an epic - in every sense of the word. The concept album (whose cast includes Kate Radmilovic, David Francis, Kimberley Blake, Sam Young, Michaela Stern, and Joseph Claus) is a most interesting listen, but not wholly satisfying; however, I do firmly believe that this project would work better on a stage in a theatre (or even better still as a film), and would be most interested in seeing the fulfilment of this endeavour.
Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 21/2/21