Sunday, October 16, 2011


The 2009 Broadway revival of "West Side Story" was a huge success.  I saw the roadshow last night with the Memsahib at the Dallas Musical Theater at Fair Park.  It had its moments, some very fine ones I'll get to, but I was disappointed. 

When they take Broadway musicals on the road, do they scale them down?  I thought the production seemed undernourished.  One of the most beautiful and exciting symphonic scores in American musical theater, with two gangs of male dancers and their girlfriends.  Man, with some of that music, I expected that stage to explode with the Latin-tinged rhythms and updated theatrical dance sensibilities.  The Fair Park stage isn't enormous, but for some reason, the production only rarely ignited. 

In fact, it is probably not possible to reduce the dancing cast of this show.  West Side Story is famous for giving many of the dancers speaking parts as gang members.  I have read that casting for the show is difficult because one has to find performers who can sing, dance, and act.  The show failed to take off for other reasons.

Bernardo and Anita:  "Mambo"

The acting is a problem, because the script was unrealistic even in 1957, when it opened on Broadway.  The "white" (actually, the children of European immigrants) Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks are supposed to be juvenile delinquent gangs, but in 1957 excessive vulgarity, explicit sexual references, and violent racial slurs were not permissible.  ("Spic" and "wop" were apparently exceptions.)    The result is a script (by Arthur Laurents) that invents a kind of beatnik patois that sounds very odd coming out of the mouths of actors who are supposed to be violent teenagers.  I've always had sympathy for actors struggling through some of these scenes, but a show that sounded unusual but fresh in 1957 sounds downright weird now. 

I'm not sure at whose door should be placed another of my complaints.  Amplification of musical productions is a mixed blessing.  On the other hand, you can hear everything.  On the other, if not correctly modulating, it's ear-splitting in every seat in the theater.  Perhaps generations of theatergoers since the sixties are accustomed to extremely loud musical performances, but this music -- much of which is pitched very high, including the parts sung by males -- was sometimes painful to listen to.  I assume that these shows either carry with them, or specify, their own sound engineering subject to the capabilities of the local venues.  All I can tell you is -- this show was really, really, loud.

But here is my major complaint:

Large chunks of dialogue among the Sharks were conducted in Spanish.  This was annoying enough, but someone had the bright idea of taking large chunks of Stephen Sondheim's classic lyrics and performing them in Spanish. 

Of course the Sharks were Puerto Rican.  Got it.  But the actors are not speaking for one another's benefit, you know?   Note to revival producers:  Those people on stage, they're not real people having real conversations -- they are actors speaking lines to entertain the audience.   There were probably patrons in the full house who knew what was being spoken, but if it exceeded five percent I would be surprised.  I would be surprised if that percentage were much exceeded in any city in which this was performed, including New York City.  And we're not talking about the occasional phrase -- we're talking about entire (although usuall brief) conversations that the audience could not understand.  (Most of the intra-Shark dialogue was spoken in accented English.)  Asking the audience to figure it out from the context is arrogant and presumptuous.   It sounded like what it probably was -- political correctness.  And like political correctness usually is, it was annoying and, most damaging to the production, a desperate lunge for verisimilitude that came across as fake, trying to make a point that the play itself was not interested in.

Too bad.  There were things to enjoy in this production.  The performers were talented, even though no one would mistake these fine dancers as 1950s ethnic gang members.  The leads handled the very difficult-to-sing score beautifully.  (The songs are very "rangy" -- you know, like the National Anthem, going from low to very high -- especially for the male singers, and feature Leonard Bernstein's characteristically jazzy intervals.)   Some parts of the dance numbers were striking. 

So while I enjoyed the show -- it is hard not to enjoy that music and orchestration -- I cannot recommend it whole-heartedly.  If you decide to see it, you might visit the Rosetta Stone kiosk at your local mall and see if they have an abridged course in Theatrical Spanish.

Friday, October 7, 2011

BREAKING NEWS -- New Evidence on the Catholic Church's Uneasy Relationship with Nazi Germany: The Swastika Blessing

Well, I suppose that depends on what you consider "news" and "breaking," since we're talking about a historical event here.   This article reports on information that was posted just a few hours ago (as of late Friday night, October 7), at  Here's what it's all about:

Several months ago I was privileged to report an amazing discovery made by my Yale roommate, Steve Galebach.  You can find the earlier report here: "Was the the Vatican Soft on Nazism?"   It has lots of background you won't find here, so you may want to check it out.  In short:   In doing some archival research for a client, Steve found this photograph in Der Stürmer, a violently anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper (in fact, not a newspaper -- a wildly polemical propaganda rag) that was widely disseminated and influential in Germany.

Caption:  "An archbishop blesses the Nazi banner."
[Click on photo to enlarge.]
It reportedly shows Archbishop Santiago Luis Copello of Buenos Aires blessing the Nazi flag (not yet the German national flag) at the worldwide Eucharistic Congress held there in 1934.  Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933.

Is this a big deal?  Yes.  How big remains uncertain.

(1)  There are no other reports that anyone has been able to find that any senior Catholic priest ever blessed a swastika flag.  This photograph has never been noticed or reported on in any of the vast scholarship on the relationship between the Nazis and the Roman Catholic Church.   The RCC forbade blessing the Nazi symbol. 

So Steve's discovery is historic.   Future historians of Nazi-Roman Catholic relations will be required to account for it.

(2)  Second, the Vatican's emissary to the Eucharistic Congress, guest of Archbishop Copello, and the senior Catholic official present (not at this ceremony) was one Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State.  Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in 1939.   There is a lively historiography as to Pacelli's attitude toward Nazi Germany.  While there is considerable evidence of Pacelli's disapproval of Nazism, there is enough uncertainty over what he knew and when he knew about the Holocaust to prompt one author to call him "Hitler's Pope."  (John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope, 1999; and there was also Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy which was also highly critical of Pius XII on this score, later made into a movie called "Amen" by Costa-Gavras.)  Despite the controversy that continues regarding his attitude toward European Jewry, the Vatican is currently proceeding with the steps required to declare Pius XII a saint.

(3)  Copello himself was elevated to Cardinal months later, in 1935.

Archbishop, later Cardinal, Copello

(4)  The world -- including Argentina, and including in particular Catholics in Argentina -- knew quite a lot about Nazism in 1934.  Mein Kampf was widely known, as was the violent antisemitism of the Nazi Party.  The incredibly savage purge of the SA (Sturmabteilung), the Nazis' military arm, in which scores and probably hundreds were murdered (including some extremely prominent Germans outside of the military), received worldwide press and was heavily covered in Argentina.  (This "Night of the Long Knives" is one of the centerpiece events of of a current popular history by Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts.)  That slaughter took place in June 1934.  The swastika blessing was in October.  The Nazis' methods and motives were already viewed with alarm -- World War II, after all, was only five years off.   In the months before the blessing, official Catholic publications in Argentina condemned the Nazis for their anti-Catholic actions, among other things.  Could Copello possibly have been merely naive or uninformed?  And if he was not, does his decision to proceed reflect in any way on his superiors from Rome?

When I originally reported on this a year ago, Galebach, a staunch Roman Catholic, wasn't quite sure what to make of all this. 

Neither was I.  My initial concern was that Steve did not have any confirmation that the photograph was authentic.  It appeared nowhere (apparently) besides one of the least credible publications in history.  I had other questions, and still do, but that one was fundamental.

Well, there are two pieces of news hot off the Internet:

First, the authenticity of the photograph is no longer in doubt.  In searching through issues of the Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa from 1934 earlier this year, Steve's wife Diane Galebach found a report of this ceremony and an explicit mention that among the flags Archbishop Copello blessed was the Nazi party flag.  Present were the German ambassador and a group of Catholic pilgrims from Germany visiting the Eucharistic Congress.  Although  not as dramatic as the photograph, this brief passage is every bit as significant -- more so, in fact, because it was not found in a scurrilous Nazi broadsheet like the photo but in a contemporaneous news account from the Eucharistic Congress itself in a legitimate newspaper.  In fact, the newspaper reported that the ceremony was a "consecration" -- a greater Catholic honor than a "blessing."  Thus, a Catholic archbishop blessed, or consecrated, a swastika on the eve of the visit to the Eucharistic Congress by the future Pius XII.  It happened.

Second, Steve and Diane have begun to publish their findings in an online book called The Swastika Blessing.  (  You may download and read a free introduction that is pretty complete in itself, and for $12 you can download Volume 1, which contains much more detailed information and some fascinating background relating to the relationship between Roman Catholicism and National Socialism.  Three more volumes relating to Vatican policy towards Nazi Germany in 1934 and 1935, and additional "causes and context" research are scheduled for release before the end of the year.  For your $12 now, you get a 111-page PDF in a Power-Point-type format with lots of text and many photographs and documents, complete with translations.  Extremely interesting and clearly presented. 

[NOTE:  I reviewed and provided extensive comments and suggestions on early drafts of Steve's work on this, before Diane became more involved.  Steve's and Diane's project changed considerably in scope and presentation thereafter; I reviewed one early and very different draft of the present format, and the present incarnation not at all.  I am mentioned in their acknowledgements.]

The question before the house is:  Should this photograph -- rather, should the event it portrays -- provoke a re-examination of RCC-Nazi relations in the years leading up to World War II?  And, of more urgent current interest, should it provoke a re-examination of the attitude toward National Socialism of Cardinal Pacelli -- Pope Pius XII -- as the RCC moves ever closer to elevating him to sainthood?

Cardinal Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII
The latter is the question that exercises the Galebachs.  Both are devout Catholics.  They have chosen a somewhat unorthodox method of presenting what they've found, their book taking the form of a presentation of evidence both damaging and exculpatory to the hierarchy of the RCC in alternating sections presented by an "investigator" and "defense counsel."   I did not find this unusual approach distracting, and it has the merit of making room for a great deal of background information.   The free Introduction has quite a bit of information in summary form, it's much more than a tease.  Chapter I is a detailed overview of events at the Eucharistic Congress, including the blessing, the relationship between the major players (Pius XI, Pacelli/Pius XII, and Copello), and what was known about the Nazis' ideology and practices in Argentina in 1934.

Despite their scrupulousness in presenting evidence favorable to Pacelli/Pius XII, the overall impression the Galebachs leave is one of skepticism as to whether Pacelli's robes are entirely clean.  As a result, the reader is left with the further impression that the Galebachs believe that the episode may well be material to the ongoing beatification process for Pius XII -- and, presumably, adverse to the sainthood partisans -- although they are careful not to come right out and say it.  (Although their subheading promises "an "investigation into a photograph that changes history.") 

That's quite an impression to derive from one photograph and a confirmatory newspaper item.  I hope I am not being unfair in attributing it to them.   Is it justified?

It should be noted that no one took special note of this event at the time.  The photo appeared nowhere until it popped up some months later in Der Stürmer, but the contemporary newspaper account explicitly stated that the Archbishop had blessed the swastika flag -- it used the phrase "cruz gamada," which translates as "swastika."   Whatever this might mean to us now, it did not provoke any notice at the time that the Galebachs have been able to find.  (To my knowledge -- no idea what goodies they have in store for us in later installments.)   If, as the Galebachs have shown, the Nazis' virulent anti-Catholicism and violent suppression of religious freedom were known to Catholic officials, why not? 

The Galebachs have found themselves at the center of quite a mystery.

In the absence of direct evidence of either (1) Pacelli's complicity, or (2) Copello's intentions in blessing the Nazi banner, the Galebachs proceed in the only way available to them:  By examining the overall context of Nazi/Vatican relations in the mid-Thirties, in Argentina and Rome.  What they have produced so far, as investigators with a large family to care for and other jobs to do, is nothing short of astounding.   I don't know everything they've come up with or where their own thinking has settled, but I am looking forward to the remaining three installments.

Here's that link again:

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Brief Rest on a Long Journey

It started a week or so ago.

Monarchs began appearing in the sky.  One at a time, flapping then coasting, flapping a little more and floating on what breeze there was.

I didn't think much about it.  Monarchs are large butterflies, but not uncommon.

I was pleased, though, to see a monarch visiting our vitex tree in the backyard one late afternoon a few days ago.  Vitex is a flowering tree, with clusters of small blue flowers at the tips of its branches.  It hails originally from the Mediterranean.  (It is also known as Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Abraham's Balm, or Monk's Pepper.)  Ours only bloomed once last year, its first at our address, but this year it bloomed off and on all summer and at this writing is fully decked out in its autumn finery.  It is usually crowned with a nimbus of bumblebees and common honeybees.

Late Saturday afternoon, the scene changed.

I was out on the patio having a cigar and reading a crime novel, my back to the vitex.  I got up to get the grill heating for that evening's repast, when my eye was instantly drawn to motion at the vitex.

I couldn't count the monarchs.  I'll estimate two dozen, flying and lighting on the blooms.  When one would light, it would fold its wings behind it and set a spell.  When one shoved off, it would usually fly around the tree and find another spot to investigate.

Monarch on vitex (not ours)
After about an hour, I noticed that there was no more flying.  There were only these handfuls of monarchs hanging off of the bloom clusters.

So beautiful, so rare.  One of those moments where spectacle descends into your everyday life and makes you feel good about being alive.

One by one, the monarchs lifted off the vitex.  They flew around the yard for a bit, but each concluded its visit the same way.

It headed north. 

I thought well that's pretty cool, just like on the nature shows, they're flying about to orient themselves to the position of the sun, or the earth's magnetic field, or however it is they navigate, and, having done so, get going on their storied migration of thousands of miles to their overwintering grounds.

Which, uh, makes flying north in October a terrible mistake, since they're supposed to be flying south.

I considered the usual suspects for mass species-destructive behavior -- cell phone tower radiation (I was checking blog hits on my Droid); global warming (hard to be unseasonably warm in the summer, but DFW has managed it); deforestation (I'd pulled some weeds).

Seemed unlikely.

So what motivates living things?

Monarchs have little use for cash.

They'd just chowed down on vitex nectar.

That leaves  .  .  .

So, after pondering the gorgeous pastoral mystery in my own back yard, I'm going with my theory that some hot monarch butterfloozy headed north for reasons best known to monarchs if not lepidopterists, trailing a string of irresistible pheromones and ardent fluttering suitors behind her, and leaving it at that.

Mm-hmm:  monarchs breeding on vitex