BWW Interview: Mona Golabek of THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Helps Us Find Our Common Humanity by Telling Her Mother's Story
Mona Golabek, the sole performer of "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, has truly followed a singular path, both in her career and in her life. She first came to prominence as a virtuoso concert pianist appearing with major orchestras around the world. In 1998, she began hosting her own successful syndicated radio show, "The Romantic Hour," which combined romantic poetry and classical music. Her life took another unexpected turn in 2002 when she co-wrote the best-seller "The Children of Willesden Lane" which tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura, whose life was saved as a young girl by the Kindertransport which took her away from her family in Nazi-occupied Austria to safety in London. In 2012, Ms. Golabek collaborated with Hershey Felder to create the stage adaptation "The Pianist of Willesden Lane." She has since taken the show across the country and toured internationally, and now makes it her mission to use her mother's story as a catalyst to bring reconciliation in our divisive world. BroadwayWorld recently spoke with Ms. Golabek from her home in Los Angeles. In conversation, she exhibits the natural warmth and ease of an accomplished radio host and has just the barest hint of a sort of pan-European accent, perhaps another sign of the enduring influence of her mother. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
I assume you knew about your mother's childhood long before writing "The Children of Willesden Lane." What prompted you to write the book?
When I was a little kid, my mom taught me the piano, and in the piano lessons, in between the Bach and the Beethoven, she would tell me the story of her life. She always said that each piece of music tells a story. These lessons were incredible. I heard about mysterious characters, about her beautiful hometown of Vienna. I heard about the train ride that she took. I heard how kids would whistle the Grieg Piano Concerto in the streets of London.
Many, many years later, I was engaged to play the very piece she dreamed about making her debut in, the Grieg Piano Concerto. I woke up the next morning and thought, "Wow, this is that piece." I don't know what overcame me, but I thought if I could write something down and get it out there, I could share it with others. I really believed there were amazing messages in the story. What do you hold onto when you're faced with enormous challenges in life? What's our purpose here on earth? I'm fond of saying this is the story of man's humanity to man. They saved the lives of those ten thousand Jewish children, and one of them was my mother. A million children went on the trains to the East and to the camps, versus these ten thousand children that were saved when the trains went to the West.
So I never gave up. I went out there, I had no clue how to do it, and one day I got a book published - just never gave up. It's what I tell young readers all over the world now because I have a very big educational mission built from this.
Once the book was a success, what gave made you think "This could be a play!"?
One day I was taken to see a show at The Geffen Playhouse, to see Hershey Felder. I was so stunned, so shocked, by the genius of this man. Previously when the book had come out and I would go around and tell the story a little bit at the piano, people would say, "You know, this would make a wonderful play or a one-woman show or something." I thought about that, but I had no clue really how to go about it. So when I saw Hershey's play through this mutual friend, I called him to ask for some advice just to talk it through with him. I did a little performance for him, sort of a prototype, and when it was done he said, "You know, it's a really moving story and I want to see if I can produce you." It was the shock of my life. He changed the course of my life totally. He's given me the opportunity to share this with the world in a very profound way so I just have the most enormous gratitude towards him.
Then began the really hard work. He took the book and adapted it into a script for the stage, and I started to study with an amazing coach down here in Los Angeles by the name of Howard Fine. He's just a brilliant person. I was lucky - you know, you just never know. His family had also come out of the Holocaust so he had a particular sensitivity to the story and he helped me to understand a lot of principles onstage. I mean, I was coming in with a background as a concert pianist.
Was this your first experience as an actor?
Yes. My first and last! (laughs uproariously) So that's how it happened. Hershey got me an audition at The Geffen Playhouse, and we were only supposed to go a month, but ended up going half a year in the black box there. Then he took a chance on me and started to tour me in different places.
And how did you connect then with the folks at TheatreWorks?
Well, that's Hershey. As I understand it, Hershey is maybe one of most successful artists in their history. He brought it to their attention, and some of the people had seen me do the play in other places so it kind of fell into place.
I can't imagine what it's like to play your own mother, let alone a mother with such an emotionally complicated story. I believe Howard Fine advised you, "If it doesn't cost you every night when you go out on stage, don't go out anymore."
What does that mean to you?
That you never take for granted every night you walk out there. Every night you have to load in those images, those memories, the emotional openness. People ask me "How can you tell this story every night? It's such a powerful story and you're the only one out there onstage doing it." Every night the heart has to be opened in a different way. When I go through that story, allowing different aspects to come back onstage of memories of what my mother told me so that it's fresh and new and has integrity. I take the ride every night, I take the journey. I slip into my mother's red shoes, if you will. I take that wonderful journey that she took.
So many adults feel we never truly got to know our parents or understand their childhood histories. What have you learned about your mother from playing her?
That she was bigger than life, she had an extraordinary willpower. To be put on a train at such a young age and see the train pull away from the family and the city that you love, where you grew up, not knowing if you're ever going to see them again has to be an absolute psychic, traumatic hole in the heart. To come to a country where you don't know anybody, hardly speak the language, make your way in the world and to hold onto a dream, which is the dream of her music, in that dark period of time with so many losses. She was an astonishing, astonishing person. I knew it growing up, I knew it all through my life, but I've really come to know it in doing this play.
And in writing the book, which has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of kids now across the globe. I just came from South Africa where 10,000 kids read the book and then I did an abbreviated version of the show, in both Capetown and Johannesburg. That's sort of the mission, the educational part of things. And to me, the absolute passionate gratefulness that I have to Hershey, that I've been able to grow this educational mission a hundredfold because of "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" and its response from audiences across the globe. The reason audiences connect so deeply to the theatrical story is that it's a story for today [even though] it's set in World War II. People come up and say "You told my story." or "You told my mother's story." or "You told the story of a neighbor down the street." You're telling the story of the greatest refugee crisis that we're experiencing in mankind today. You're telling a story of faith and triumph of the human spirit to go after your dream despite all the obstacles. You're addressing the story or persecution and prejudice. It's a universal story.
I think today young people are very sensitive to these issues because the dialog, the rhetoric, is so brutal out there. What is going on in the world is really, really upsetting. We are separating ourselves and calling out the "other" and the name calling and everything - it's awful! That's why we need stories to say "We gotta come together." If we don't come together, this world isn't going to survive.
I think that "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" and "The Children of Willesden Lane" has found its resonance or relevance - not that it's a greater story than so many other extraordinary stories out there - but somehow that we've been able to do it through the music. The music is the secret arrow that enters the hearts of the theatregoers and magnifies the story lines. We chose very carefully what the pieces were going to be. The piano is my co-actor out there. It's my friend out there and helps me drive that story line.
I assume when you started doing the play it put you more at ease because you're used to being in front of an audience playing the piano.
In a way, but it's still "throw-up time" in all the different cities when you open. You just say "Who was the idiot that agreed to this?!" (laughs) and I point to myself. Nothing is easy out there. And Hershey is exacting and deeply challenging and demanding of the highest standards. It's astonishing to see him in operation. He cautioned me in the very beginning "The dedication has to be so enormous because when you go out there, no one can save you. You're on your own." There have been times when I just thought "Omigod!" - but he was right, he was right about everything.
You also hosted a long-running radio show called "The Romantic Hours." How did that come about?
Well, that's an older show from ten years ago. It still runs in about 10-15 stations; it's sort of syndicated. It's not as current as it was then - they're repackaging it a lot of the time and cutting it up and whatnot, but I am very proud of it. Nearly 400 shows circulate out there and on the internet. The basis of that was taking whatever gifts I had in storytelling and my ability to narrate in a certain way and to combine it with the great classical music. We kind of thought outside of the box - Chinese poets to Bach, Byron to Poulenc, just all kinds of crazy things that we did to mix and match - series of love letters of Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann set of course to their great works of art, and the menage a trois with Brahms. It became very successful and got quite highly syndicated. Classical stations have changed their formats so it's kind of a moving target right now and we're exploring where we're going to take the "Romantic Hours" further.
But you're hoping it has a future?
You know, my life is so taken up with "Willesden Lane." I have massive citywide reads scheduled in the next several years all over the world. We're growing this with Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. We'll take it to millions of students in the future bring it into schools with Discovery Education. And then I've sold the book for a movie, a feature film.
I was just thinking it seems to me like it would make a terrific movie.
I'm not sure I'm allowed to say, I mean it's all over the internet, but I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say what studio it is just yet because they're going to do a formal announcement. The book now is in ten languages and I've just been made a fantastic offer for an illustrated book from Little Brown. It's just a dream come true for me that this story and this message is embraced.
Do you have any plans to do more live theater, other plays?
No, no, this is my life, this is the mission. I think what allows me to go out there and do this is that I'm so close to this story. I really believe that my talents belong specifically in this story and the telling of it and the marriage to the piano. Really where my heart lies is inspiring young people by this story. It's been fascinating for me to see specifically how the African American community has cheered this story, and the Hispanic community and kids from all walks of life. I did two runs in London which led to a citywide read of the book. About ten thousand kids were all brought over several days to Methodist Central Hall. One-third of the audience were Muslim students, cheering the story of a Jewish teenager in World War II. I think that when you've got a story that can break down walls of prejudice and pre-ordained views of other people, and can bring us all together... That's why I'm the luckiest person right now, to have the opportunity to tell this story through my mother.
(Photos Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane runs Wednesday, January 15th through Sunday, February 16th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA. For information or to order tickets visit theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960.