A mother’s Holocaust story in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’
Mona Golabek was headed for a career at the piano from the beginning of her life.
“The joke in the family was that I came out of the womb and my mother looked at my fingers to see how quickly they could stretch into a
Rachmaninoff octave,” Golabek says. “Most likely it was predestined that I would carry on the dream that was cut short for her.”
Golabek became an accomplished concert pianist who has performed with major orchestras at august venues like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. But for more than a decade she has been keeping her mother’s dream alive another way: by telling her story.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” which comes to the Paramount Center Friday through Dec. 16, is a one-woman show in which Golabek recounts how her mother, a promising pianist named Lisa Jura, escaped the Third Reich. In 1938, at her parents’ insistence, 14-year-old Lisa left her family behind and fled Vienna on the Kindertransport that brought 10,000 Jewish children to England before the outbreak of World War II.
“She would always tell me in piano lessons what my grandmother told her at the train station, the very last words,” Golabek says. “She made my mother make her a promise, to ‘hold on to your music.’ ”
The show also describes what happened next, in England, where she lived that promise through wartime bombing and deprivations.
“She grew up in this Jewish hostel with these kids as teenagers, and her music was a source of inspiration not only to her, as she survived what was probably one of the darkest periods in history, but a source of inspiration for those kids,” Golabek says. “They glommed on to it, she became a little heroine for them, they worked with her on the music . . . they kind of joined in her dream to go for it.”
Golabek says she heard the stories first as a girl growing up in California, as she had her daily piano lessons with her mother. “They were life lessons, of course. They were about technique and a Beethoven sonata and pianissimo and fortissimo and all those things . . . but they were really also: Who’s the music about? Who’s the composer writing for? Who’s he passionate about?” she says. “And they were about my mother’s growing-up years. We would be in a Beethoven sonata and out of nowhere she would stop and say, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time Johnny “King Kong” read poetry to me at night while the bombs came down?’ ”
Lisa achieved some portion of her dream, but not the grand career that had once seemed within her reach. Like so many others after the war, Golabek says, her mother faced twin tasks of coping with her losses and making a new life for herself. Both of Golabek’s parents lost many family members in the Holocaust, and they carried a pain that Golabek and her sister could sense even though it was not spoken aloud.
“You knew what your parents had lost, even if subconsciously,” Golabek says. “There’s always this hole in your heart somewhere. You can’t save them; you can’t make it right. You just try to be as good as you can be, I guess.”
Decades ago with the Seattle Symphony, Golabek says, she played the Grieg piano concerto that was a signature piece of her mother’s repertoire and began to think of a way to share her mother’s story with the world. For years she worked on a film-script treatment that was never produced. Eventually she co-wrote a book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” which was published in 2002, a few years after her mother died. As it gained traction in school curriculums, she hatched the idea of a stage adaptation.
She was already a fan of Hershey Felder, the musician, actor, and playwright known for his one-man biographical shows, including “George Gershwin Alone” and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein,” both of which ArtsEmerson brought to Boston earlier this year.
About three years ago, Golabek asked Felder for his advice, and soon she met with him at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where he was performing “Beethoven, As I Knew Him.” She did a 30-minute version of her show for him.
“He was very complimentary, and then he took a few moments of silence, and then he said, ‘I’d like to produce it,’” she recalls. “I was shocked. And thrilled.”
They began a collaboration, with Golabek often traveling around the country to work with Felder wherever he was performing. Eventually a 90-minute show emerged. Golabek even took acting lessons. It wasn’t easy at first.
“I had a great music background, and there are similar things there. The goal is spontaneous life,” she says. “Whether it’s a Tchaikovsky piano concerto or doing a scene, you don’t want it to be stale or set in cement. That’s what I began to understand. I was comfortable doing that, musically. You work for years to perfect octaves and chords, to reach perfection technically, because the whole idea is then you want to be free. You want to walk out onstage and blow people away.”
The one-person show is a tricky format, Felder says.
“There is this sense that one must act with a capital A, and the secret of these things — and it’s a very simple secret, but it’s very hard to do — is to never let go of your audience. Always talk to them,” he says. “You must always talk to them and never let go, and not start doing this internal kind of self-indulgent acting as if you’re creating something. It doesn’t work, and they lose you.”
It’s been fun to help someone else discover the right path, says Felder, who has a codirector, Trevor Hay, shepherding the production when Felder is performing his own work.
“It’s not ensemble acting where you’re talking to somebody else onstage,” Felder says. “The audience is your other actor, and you have to be absolutely in tune with them. If you feel like you’re acting, you’re making the biggest mistake possible.”
Golabek’s show premiered at the Geffen in April, and a one-month run was eventually extended through August. Boston is the second engagement, and Golabek hopes to keep it going, with a dream of playing the same stage in London where her mother made her own concert debut.
“The thing I tried to do the most was just go out there and speak from the heart,” Golabek says, “so I would connect with my mom, think about what she’s gone through, try to inhabit her skin and feel her losses. Many times I got overcome, and it was hard and it continues to be. I know that’s part of the process. You have to keep reconnecting.”