The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane
By Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder

Set in Vienna in 1938 and London during the Blitzkrieg, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true and inspiring story of Lisa Jura, a young Jewish pianist whose dream of making her concert debut at the storied Musikverein concert hall is dashed by the onset of World War II. Despite devastating personal loss, her music enables Jura to endure and pursue her dreams.

Performed by Jura’s daughter, Grammy®-nominated pianist Mona Golabek, The Pianist of Willesden Lane combines enthralling story telling with breath-taking live performances of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and more.

Thanks to all for the lively discussion after the performance. Please continue the conversation now by weighing in on the following questions, as well as adding any other questions and comments:

  • Each one of us has an innate comfort zone in the discreet languages of word or music. Will you reflect on how, in this performance, were you led by your proclivity for music to open up the context of text and story or did the text unpack and deepen the appreciation of the piano music?
  •  The production blends narrative + piano performance to tell the story and pay tribute to Mona Golabek’s mother. But is it music-theatre?
  •  How did the choices in stage and sound design contribute to the overall experience?
  •  Why does Golabek include not only major concert works but musical shards and popular ditties? Why does she break off certain piano pieces before their ends as written?



8 comments on “The Pianist of Willesden Lane”

  1. Susan G.

    Very powerful theatre. I thought the scenes where she described specific interaction with others – the teacher who must stop the lessons, the discussion of who gets the Kindertransport ticket, scenes with other children in England, etc. – were especially compelling. Music was woven in perfectly, to my unexperienced classical ear. Her speech at the curtain calls might well be incorporated into the actual show in some fashion. It would be in keeping with bringing the story up to date. I would love to see this woman perform an entire work or concert!

  2. Ari Jacobson

    I think that this play hearkens back to the original concept of “Melodrama,” i.e., drama with a musical accompaniment. Although the term has come to refer to the overly saccharine, over-emotive style of theatre popular at the time of the word’s popularization, the original meaning of a musical underscoring to spoken drama is actually what we have come to accept as the absolute norm for FILMED dramas. I sometimes wonder why it is so rare to have similar accompaniment expressing/deepening the mood of a scene in straight drama.

    This piece made perfect use of the piano (and the virtuosity of Golabek’s playing while simultaneously telling us the story was the epitome of “making it look easy”) and the ability of music to both set a mood and transport us to a time and place. Having the actual piano music which was being referenced so often in the story actually being played live made the images three dimensional and immediate in a way that would have been difficult or impossible to achieve with words alone.

  3. Catherine Lincoln

    A touching personal story of a young girl’s travails and adventures, lifted above the ordinary by blending in musical passages played by our heroine. As Lisa (played by Mona Golabek) narrated and acted out the scenes, the picture frames ingeniously illustrated the background events, from her family members to the Anschluss, Kristalnacht, and Nazis rounding up Austrian Jews, then later the Blitz bombings of London and the Allied invasion. The story had some lighter moments between the tragic and frightening scenes, with some wittily drawn humorous characters. The overall theme of Lisa’s talent and her determination to become a concert pianist had an underlying message of preserving art and civilization when the world seemed to be falling apart. The musical pieces by Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Grieg and others were beautifully rendered by Mona. A lovely performance!

  4. Susan

    The script, while there was neither a lyric written nor opera libretto for “through singing” (in fact only a few notes were sung, and those intentionally off key, cheekily making fun of Mona’s first piano teacher,) the evening was for me music-theatre. The narrative structure did not build on traditional dramatic dialogue based on individual conflict, but the integration of music + text was so artfully crafted and included a build of a dramatic arc which carried us into an emotional experience where “drama told the story and music broke open our hearts.”
    I was also intrigued by many facets of character that this non-actress conveyed. She started with, “This is my mother’s story,” which gave us the “why” she constructed the work, but it could have stayed just that, a narrative. But the moment her arms lifted, and then a few chords later, she was suddenly a fourteen-year old girl in Vienna. She showed us Lisa Jura’s pluck with a line such as “But I have my own ideas” (regarding musical interpretation of Grieg), which stood her well as she made her way in England during WWII. She showed us her terror at being separated from her family. She showed us her determination, but perhaps most surprising of all, she showed her sense of humor and her gratitude at the humanity which buoyed her up in the darkest of times.
    The dramatic turning points were all there, starting with her teacher’s inability to teach her as a young Jew and her parents making as difficult a selection of which daughter to send on the KinderTransport as Sophie’s choice. But every turn was supported and emotionally expanded by a piece of piano music. In the spacious silence found in Debussy I could feel all the emptiness of the girl’s loss and longing. When she played Chopin in the basement of Willesden Lane and everyone came to hear, to find solace and hope, I was reminded again why we need art. When Rachmaninoff chords crashed in the foreground, behind there were the reels of bombs being dropped in terrible silence. In her personal triumph, when she poured herself into the playing of the Grieg Piano Concerto, I felt she was singlehandedly determined to raise her family from the dead. And in a way, she did. In doing so, she gave us back some essential connection to our own humanity.

  5. Marianne Soponis

    I appreciate the other in-depth comments on the blog. My skills at critique are still developing. All I can add is that I was enthralled with the story and music from the moment I saw Mona Golabek sitting at the piano, the lighting like a halo around her head; the golden frames setting the scene in cultural Vienna; her magical fingers and voice introducing us to her play! I wasn’t quite sure what to expect — probably a bit more sadness than uplift — but it all came together in a beautiful way, leaving me almost breathless as she played her final, riveting piece. I am still thinking about her story, her gift to her mother and to us….

  6. Robert Darling

    This was a remarkable evening. Not knowing what to expect, the vibrant ‘conversation’ resulting from the interplay between the story teller / daughter/character/pianist, her fingers and the piano sounds as they happened / evolved, delighted and surprised. To me this presented an unusual and new Music Theater. The evening would not have been the same were the musical conversation not there. It touched and moved in a different plane than the verbal story. Both added to our emotional understanding of the events. Present were some of our expectations from a theater event —it moved, established a story idea, and rewarded with a final concert. The other characters were present in our mind’s idea. We were given some verbal guides to the story. However, for me the emotional aural extensions of the moment given not only by the music, by her playing, but also (from where I was sitting) the beautiful movement of her hands, reflected in the piano case, was extraordinary.

    In any intense music theater event emotions transfer into musical sound when demanded by the action ideas. Here the transitions sometimes were subordinate to the text carrying the emotions and at other times took off and extended the emotional beats. It was a fascinating and very engaging ‘conversation’. Toward the end I wanted complete musical pieces, but I suspect the director carefully screened and edited them to keep focus on the play’s movement. This was done very well keeping the story forward and the individual artistry of Chopin or Grieg as support.

    This evening was also a great example of a modern sound design. There was good audibility, as expected, but also the Sound Designer made great use of other music and sounds. The Sound Performer at his counsel behind the audience, also gets kudos for bringing and balancing a full orchestra bringing it into the auditorium when required, along with dropping bombs and that wonderful bell cue (so well mimed) to summon tea. All expertly thought through and well executed. If Opera means a multiple of disciplines, of works, coming together (the plural of Opus in Italian) to tell a story and engage our “Theatrical Imagination” in the words of Robert Edmond Jones, this lovely evening was operatic in its way.

    Together, these rigorously tempered elements made a wonderful evening (despite some quibbles with the set) It also hints at a theatrical form to explore further.

  7. Carolyn Griffin

    Not sure how you are defining music theatre but for me this was a play rather a narrative with music, greatly enhanced with the music though it clearly has been successful as a stand alone book as well. There is no question that the music both the choices and the execution were exceptional and the director Hershey Felder who also adapted the book did a terrific job folding the music into the story. Also excellent use of projections. I don’t think the music advanced the story the way we expect it to do in true musical theatre, but it certainly enhanced. Also I used the word narrative above for a very specific reason. Mona is telling a very compelling story made more compelling when you find out it is the story of her mother, but it doesn’t have the usual conflict and resolution that we expect from a play. Still a compelling story and beautifully enhanced with the use of music. I think all plays can be enhanced with music-my bias-but they are still fundamentally plays. Maybe that is the definition of music theatre after all in contrast to musical theatre.

  8. artsconnectedDC

    I thought that the choices and timing of the selections from within the major concert works, especially the Grieg, was crucial to using music to underline, advance, and foreshadow plot elements. Based on this, I would say that the work is certainly music theatre.

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