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New Broadway Play ‘Leopoldstadt’ Looks at a Large Jewish Family in Vienna for More Than Half a Century: NPR

Tom Stoppard’s new play, “Leopoldstadt”, was born out of a quarantine awareness of the number of his loved ones who died in the Holocaust.


Tom Stoppard, who is legendary for his wit, his intellect and his pen, has never written a play as autobiographical as his short story, which opens tomorrow on Broadway. “Leopoldstadt” looks at a large Jewish family in Vienna for half a century. And as Jeff Lunden reports, it’s part recognition and part confession.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Tom Stoppard seems like the perfect Englishman, right down to the rolled R’s in his speech. But he was born in what was then called Czechoslovakia.

TOM STOPPARD: A lot of this piece doesn’t follow my biography, but it rhymes with it.

LUNDEN: Born Tomas Straussler, his family fled the Nazis in 1938 and moved to Singapore. But the Japanese invaded. Her father was killed and the family moved to India. His mother remarried a man named Stoppard, who moved them to England. The playwright says his family’s Jewish roots were never brought up.

STOPPARD: It was a combination of my mom not looking back and loving to talk about the past, on the one hand. On the other hand, there was my strange lack of curiosity. I had become a little English boy. I was very happy to be an English boy. I didn’t need to become someone else.

LUNDEN: But he became a dazzling playwright and a celebrity. Then, in his 50s, a cousin he didn’t know contacted him and started telling him about his own family.

STOPPARD: I didn’t know I had family who died in the camps. I just didn’t know that.

LUNDEN: Including the two sets of grandparents. Almost 20 years later, Stoppard faced this loss in “Leopoldstadt”.

PATRICK MARBER: Yeah, there’s a Tom-like character that appears at the end, but Tom is in it all the way, talking to himself.

LUNDEN: Patrick Marber is the director of the play.

MARBER: Why did you ignore what you were? Why couldn’t you bear to look at it? How ashamed of it are you? It’s a very, very powerful judgment that a playwright has with himself and his past.


ARTY FROUSHAN: (As Leo) What did I do wrong?

BRANDON URANOWITZ: (As Nathan) Nothing. You are an accident of history.

LUNDEN: The story, says “Leopoldstadt”, does not come from Czechoslovakia, but from Vienna, Austria. It’s an epic piece that follows a large, mostly Jewish family, says Marber.

MARBER: The curtain rises and you think you’re in front of a family Christmas scene. Then you realize, oh, it’s a Jewish family celebrating Christmas or really celebrating Christmas because the landlord of the apartment has converted to Catholicism and insists. So it gets more complicated. And then a kid puts a Star of David on the Christmas tree by mistake. And then, you know, you’re in the world of a Stoppard play.


FAYE CASTELOW: (As Gretl) It’s a beautiful star, darling, but it’s not the star we put on top of our Christmas tree.

ANTHONY ROSENTHAL: (As Pauli) I will find it. I know which one it is.

BETSY AIDEM: (As Emilia) Poor boy, baptized and circumcised in the same week. What can you expect?

LUNDEN: And the audience follows the generations of this family from 1899 to after World War II. Actor David Krumholtz plays the family patriarch, Hermann. When we meet him, he has already converted to Catholicism and is a prosperous factory boss who mixes with the Viennese elite.


DAVID KRUMHOLTZ: (As Hermann) My grandfather wore a kaftan. My dad went to the opera in a top hat. And I have the singers to dinner. Actors, writers, musicians…

LUNDEN: But no matter how far he’s come in society, he’s always reminded, painfully and humiliatingly, that he was born a Jew. In 1938 he became a broken man, says Krumholtz.

KRUMHOLTZ: Because ultimately the big lesson is that whether he calls himself a Christian or not, he is on the train, or he will be on the train. His family is on the train, his children, his grandchildren. It’s devastating.

LUNDEN: At the end of the play, the opulent old Viennese apartment is empty, and only three members of this huge family remain.


URANOWITZ: (As Nathan) A New Yorker, an Austrian and a clean young Englishman.

LUNDEN: As Tom Stoppard’s replacement discovers what happened to his family, the Lost Generations gather on stage as if for a portrait, says David Krumholtz.

KRUMHOLTZ: The point of this moment is to say that most of us are dead. You know, you hear stories from survivors. But you hear these stories because they survived. Most of us haven’t. You don’t hear the stories of the dead. It’s frightening.

LUNDEN: And although the family at the center of “Leopoldstadt” is an invention of the 85-year-old playwright, says Tom Stoppard…

STOPPARD: He has his own truth. And in a way, that’s a refutable truth.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I’m Jeff Lunden in New York.


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