The Boy King Before The War

Family musical brings new attention to Holocaust hero Janusz Korczak’s literary legacy.

08/27/2013
Jewish Week Correspondent
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It is difficult to view anything inspired by the work of Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish physician/author/educator/orphanage proprietor, without interpreting it through the lens of his tragic death.

Especially when it, like the new family musical “Timmy the Great,” playing Off-Broadway at the Theater for the New City this month, is based on a Korczak book that deals with weighty issues like war and power.

Korczak famously died in the Holocaust, refusing to abandon his staff and the children in his care before they were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.

“Timmy the Great” is inspired by “King Matt the First,” Korczak’s  novel that, despite its dark themes, is a remnant of a more hopeful time.

“Korczak still lives through this book [‘King Matt the First’] and through this play, and if this play goes on he will live musically forever,” Sandra Hochman, the Pulitzer-nominated writer and one of the creators of the musical adaptation, told The Jewish Week. “He’s a tremendous inspiration; he’s like a Jewish Mandela.”

First published in Polish in 1923, the children’s story is a parable about a young king who struggles to live as a normal boy while ruling his country. The book blends political satire and children’s fantasy/adventure, with a child’s skepticism towards adult logic. Matt’s position of political power contrasts with his place of powerlessness as a child in a world run by adults. Korczak also wrote a sequel, titled “Little King Matty ... and the Desert Island.”

Not unlike the late children’s author Maurice Sendak (who was a fan of Korczak’s writing, calling “Matt the First” a “small masterpiece”), Korczak assumed that young readers were capable of handling dark and violent themes. “King Matt the First” contains descriptions of bombs, trenches and soldiers who walk so much that “blood was gurgling in their boots.”

Born Henryk Goldszmit in 1878 in Poland, Janusz Korczak was a European Dr. Spock of sorts, with clear notions about the significance of childhood and pedagogy. Among other practices, he worked as a doctor, writer, radio host, school principal, and ran multiple orphanages, most notably Dom Sierot, for Jewish children. Korczak was a Zionist who believed Jews should move to Israel, and he incorporated values of the kibbutz movement into Dom Sierot. Above all, he preached youth empowerment, validation of children’s ideas and recognition of their ability to voice their own needs and desires.

Korczak’s anti-war themes are “important for children and all people, but particularly children, because the sooner you learn not to hate and that war is a terrible thing and ridiculous — the sooner the better,” said Hochman, noting that her adaptation has “a tremendous sense of grim Kafka humor.”

The first seeds for “Timmy the Great” were sown more than a decade ago, when Polish-born Tad Danielak (Hochman’s partner and creative collaborator for over 20 years) encountered the original novel on a trip to his homeland. He and Hochman published “King Timmy the Great,” their own adaptation of the Korczak book, as a children’s book in 1999. Whereas King Matt goes through a series of loosely connected adventures, “Timmy” focuses on one that epitomizes Korczak’s playful but earnest writing: the young monarch establishes a new order where adults act like children and children function as adults. This incites other kings to wage war on the weakened kingdom. Korczak sets up his sequel by having Matt marooned on a remote island, while Timmy successfully makes a mockery of war by waging it using pies and tarts.

Shortly after the book’s publication, Hochman began adapting “Timmy” into a musical. Eventually, she partnered with Gary Kupper (“Freckleface Strawberry”) to be her composer and co-writer (Steve Craig is another co-writer). The musical was performed at the Tribeca Theater Festival in 2004, with direction by renowned dancer and choreographer Savion Glover. In the near decade since, the show’s writers have continued to work on the piece, and have added new songs. This production is directed by “Hair” choreographer Julie Arenal and casting director Jay Binder.

Korczak was fond of juxtaposing the playful with the serious, with outlandish and fanciful depictions of palace life and court etiquette (“Before King Matt left for his walk, two hundred workers and one hundred cleaning women would clean the park thoroughly”) to emphasize Matt’s conflicting role as a monarch and a child with both great power and powerlessness. This approach particularly relates to Matt’s experiences of war, which range from nearly facing a firing squad to releasing zoo animals on his enemies, making the story engaging to children while highlighting the absurdities of the world of adults.

“I feel that we have something to say to every person, particularly to every Jew, which is that war is absurd,” said Hochman. “I think this is particularly relevant now that [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry is trying to find peace in the Middle East. And ‘Timmy the Great’ is about the fact that war is a vaudeville and we shouldn’t use drones and suicide vests that kill people, but we should use cream pies.”

While Hochman values Korczak’s exploration of war and power as they relate to children, “Timmy” is as lighthearted as “Matt” is dark.

“It’s a very joyful, funny show,” she said. “As well as having some moments of grim reality.”

This “grim reality” played an all-too-important role in Korczak’s life. Despite its often fanciful nature, “King Matt the First” contains graphic details of battle and war, likely inspired by Korczak’s experiences as a military doctor during World War I. Ultimately, Korczak and his children were victims of a war fought not, as Hochman would hope, through cream pies. “King Matt the First” and “Timmy the Great” use humor and adventure to reveal to children the cruel ways of the adult world, perhaps so that the next generation will know better.

“Timmy the Great” runs through Sept. 1 at Theatre for the New City, 155 First Ave. (212) 868-4444, timmythegreat.com. $20.

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