Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What's so funny about Anne Frank?

I am not quite sure exactly when my fascination with the short life of Anne Frank began.

I think it was in the 4th grade, when I watched the Melissa Gilbert TV version take on the story. (Melissa Gilbert was one of my childhood idols...I often wore my hair in two long braids. Just call me Half-Pint.) I also checked out the diary from the library that year as well, but I don't think I exactly read it cover-to-cover.

When I was in the 5th grade, my sister's 8th grade literature class textbook had the full original play in it. I used to sneak reads of it whenever she'd leave it in the kitchen. I pretty much knew that play by heart. (It also included an interview with Attic Savior, Miep Gies.)

As the years passed, I eventually would read the entire diary word-by-word, and would also read every piece of literature on Anne Frank that I could possibly find. (Working at Barnes and Noble definitely helped my quest in finding all things Secret Annexe-related. I would automatically staff-rec every Anne Frank book that was released. I think some people thought I was a little weird.)

This included biography on Anne's father, a fictional book called The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (a "what-if" revolving around Anne's roommate and love interest Peter and imagining how things would have turned out for him had he survived...I believe he moved to upstate New York and went into Real Estate), ones written by Miep Gies and by Anne's childhood friend Hanneliese, and Anne Frank and Me, a teen fiction novel about a girl who passes out in the middle of an Anne Frank exhibit and wakes up in Nazi-occupied Europe, where she encounters Anne herself. I watched Disney Channel documentaries (one showed a video of Anne waving from a image that would haunt me for weeks) and saw several productions on stage (including last year...I saw a Dessert Theatre just didn't seem right...these people were up there pretending to be starving and fearing for their lives...while we got to eat cake.)

The more Anne Frank knowledge I aquired, the more I learned that those Melissa Gilbert and Millie Perkins film versions I knew and loved so well and the play in my sister's textbook were very much fictionalized.

In fact, they were downright WRONG.

If you're lucky, you will one day find a great friend that shares some of your odd quirks and interests. I found such a friend in Lori Mooney when we both reported for Teen People Magazine when we were 18.

Fast forward about four years later, and we were both unemployed and discouraged, sitting up on the 8th Floor lobby of the Marriot Marquis in Times Square and venting our frustrations.

Would we ever amount to anything? What would become of us?

Somehow, we started talking about Anne Frank.

(Honestly, I am really not sure WHY we started talking about Anne Frank. Perhaps it was in a, "Things could be a lot worse. We COULD be Anne Frank" kind of way.)

Our conversation turned over to the fact that Anne's older sister, Margot, ALSO kept a diary (Anne mentions this in her own diary.)

Margot's diary was never found, unlike Anne's, and while Anne went on to become the author of the second bestselling book of all time...after the Bible...Margot remained forgotten. (until now!)

Poor Margot.

Now, I have an older sister. We are three years apart (Anne and Margot were about four.) and very close, but I always thought we were as different as night and day. She always got stellar grades, I didn't, because my head was usually in the clouds. She was serious and responsible, I was always a bit goofy and flakey. She had pin-straight hair...I had a wild bunch of curls. There was never exactly any competition between us, because we were so different and never had the same ambitions or interests anyway.

However, if my sister and I were in a similar situation, in the same place and the same time and we were both recording our SAME EXACT EXPERIENCE and her account was published and adored for decades to come while mine was completely forgotten...

I would be pretty upset.

Poor Margot indeed.

Then, Lori, through laughter, said those immortal words:

"We should write a MUSICAL about MARGOT FRANK!"

We laughed.

We started joking about our musical...a chorus line of rats...a song called "I Saw Peter First..."

We never thought we would actually do it.

But somehow...

We did.

And now it's a finalist in the NJ Playwrights' Competition and we're getting a staged reading tomorrow night.

Now, this is a musical comedy.

What is so funny about Anne Frank, you ask?

Absolutely nothing. But our show is dispelling all the myths that we have grown-up knowing through those film and theatrical versions and that much-edited diary.

The show begins in a high school in modern day, USA. Teenager Min-Go Friedman, a Chinese girl who was adopted by a Jewish-American family, desperately wants to star in her school’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

However, since she is Asian, she is denied the role because she simply does not look Jewish. Her teacher explains (in a rousing opening number) that Anne Frank is the only important character in the show and the rest are merely a supporting cast. Min-Go questions this, and reminds her teacher and classmates that there were indeed seven other people hiding in that secret annex, and suggests that they be creative and put on a play told from the viewpoint of Anne’s sister, Margot. She is ignored and mocked.

After being hit in the head by a prop diary, Min-Go transports into the Secret Annex. She becomes Margot, and her classmates are now the fellow inhabitants of the attic.

Margot: Diary of the Other Young Girl raises some very important questions, while using humor to soften a very difficult topic. (And did we mention that there’s a tap-dancing duet with Jesus Christ and Margot Frank?)

I only ask that people give this show a chance before exclaiming that there is NOTHING funny or musical about a bunch of people hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic.

Perhaps after seeing our show, you will be inspired to read-up on the facts behind that bookcase door.

Consider the following...

-Dr. Pfeffer. He was renamed Mr. Dussel by Anne Frank in her diary. (Dussel means "idiot"!) Anne did not speak so well about Dr. Pfeffer in her diary, and he has been used as the "comic relief" in the play and film versions of the story. His wife, who was Christian and didn't have to go into hiding with Dr. Pfeffer, sued Mr. Frank and the writing team for tarnishing her husband's reputation. She died alone, surrounded by trash and a scrapbook of clippings about The Diary of Anne Frank.

-In the original play/movie version, Peter falls when trying to put out a light and thieves below hear the noise. At the end of the original play/movie, Miep announces that the thieves alerted the Nazis about the people in hiding. This seems to put all the blame on Peter. Peter never fell! It wasn't his fault! Fiction! Fiction! Fiction!

-In the same production, Peter's father, Mr. Van Pels (called Van Daan in the diary and fictionalized accounts), steals bread during the night. Mr. Van Pels never stole bread.

-If you read Anne's diary, she mentions a young secretary named Bep who brings food/information/good spirits daily to the Secret Annexe. Of course, she also talks about Miep, who also worked in the office. However, when this story went to Hollywood and Broadway, we never heard anything of Bep. I guess they just didn't want to bother with another character. When Bep WAS finally included in a movie version (the 2000 TV movie starring Ben Kingsly as Otto Frank), she was portrayed as a complete ditz. Miep has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and is often applauded for being such a great hero during this time, and rightfully so. However...I ask...where is Bep's applause?

-Anne Frank was a 13-year-old kid in an INCREDIBLY stressful, scary, sad situation. We are by NO means denying that. However, would you really want the world to know you as the way a kid in such a situation is portraying you? I also honestly feel that had Anne survived the war, she wouldn't have wanted her diary to be twisted around in such a way that it ruined reputations.

-Anne Frank had a great sense of humor, and I bet she would have loved our show. I bet she is up there right now, absolutely SICK of being canonized.

-This musical is not offensive. What IS offensive is the fact that we have been hearing lies about these poor people for the last sixty years.

-For all we know, Margot Frank's diary was positively BRILLIANT. She was, after all, known to be the "smarter" sister. Her diary could have been the most beautiful thing EVER written, and yet we'll never know...because it was never her little sister's was.

-11 million people died in the Holocaust. Why is Anne Frank the only one that everybody can name? Does ANYBODY really deserve to be forgotten?

We have some very important points to make...and if we have to use a little singing and a tapdancing Jesus Christ to prove them, so be it.

Diana Rissetto