In the Moment: ‘Iron & Coal’ Creator Calls His Work an Ode to a Ravaged Soul (at Strathmore)

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How does anyone cope with the unthinkable: Whether the unthinkable is The Holocaust, The Killing Fields, chemical bombs dropped on children, slavery or lynchings. How does one survive even somewhat intact?

Composer and Lyricist Jeremy Schonfeld copes by giving public voice to his father’s experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp in the form of the large-scale rock opera Iron & Coal, premiering this week (May 3, 4) at Strathmore.

Iron & Coal Composer Jeremy Schonfeld. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.
Iron & Coal Composer Jeremy Schonfeld. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.

Iron & Coal tells the story of a father (Gustav) and son (Jeremy) relationship in the shadow of the Holocaust. The musical production uses passages from Gustav’s memoir Absence of Closure as a core, then musically melds them with memories of Jeremy as its focal point.

“The production is meant to connect the audience with a father and son to understand the history and legacy that they are. It is meant to engage a wide community,” Jeremy Schonfeld told me in a recent interview. “Iron & Coal is an ode to a ravaged soul. And there are many with ravaged souls because of what was done to them by others.”

“In times of social discord, we look to the arts and music to create windows that allow us to understand others.” – Joi Brown, Artistic Director, Strathmore

For Schonfeld, Iron & Coal is more than about his father’s harrowing early life, and the long-term impact of the Holocaust on his family. “It is not meant for only certain people. It is not just a Jewish piece about the Holocaust,” added Schonfeld.

Asked about the title, Iron & Coal, Schonfeld said it was in tribute to his father Gustav. Iron for the most horrible deeds being unable to break his father. And Coal, for what is left inside someone strong enough to survive atrocities.

Strathmore’s Iron & Coal production promises modern multi-media aspects and a rock-music spirit played by a chamber orchestra. Schonfeld spoke of 200 performers on stage bringing the audience into the soul of the production and the story being told. He went on to say that the Strathmore production will present intersecting father-son storylines through music, lyrics, dialogue, and performance.

Composer Jeremy Schonfeld and Music Director David Bloom rehearse Iron & Coal. Singers from the Alexandria Harmonizers pictured in the background. Photo by Gabrielle Tillenburg.
Composer Jeremy Schonfeld and Music Director David Bloom rehearse Iron & Coal. Singers from the Alexandria Harmonizers pictured in the background. Photo by Gabrielle Tillenburg.

The ambitious Strathmore production of Iron & Coal features Jeremy Schonfeld (playing himself), Rinde Eckert (portraying Old Gustava), Lincoln Clauss (portraying Young Gustav) and New York-based ensemble Contemporaneous. Ensemble support will come from the Alexandria Harmonizers, Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras of Strathmore, Young Artists of America, and Strathmore Children’s Chorus.

“In times of social discord, we look to the arts and music to create windows that allow us to understand others,” said Joi Brown, Artistic Director, Strathmore. “This is where we find humanity. Music and stories remind us we are more alike than different.”

In our interview, Brown also noted that Iron & Coal is a story that is universal in its telling and is meant for a wide audience, “an exploration of the emotional journey of a father and son relationship. It was a relationship that had many a burden since it was built on the adversity that the father suffered.”

The immersive Iron & Coal grapples with large issues about real people and their memories of the past. As with many memories, “Iron & Coal is not linear,” Brown points out. “Rather it is a father and a son’s memories that are mingled together.”

For Strathmore, Iron & Coal represents a commitment to shepherd large-scale original productions to the stage—in 2016 Strathmore produced the premiere of I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk by Broadway lyricist Andrew Lippa and starring Broadway icon Kristin Chenoweth, followed in 2017 by the Wynton Marsalis masterwork All Rise, which hadn’t been produced in over a decade.

Iron & Coal is directed by the renowned Kevin Newbury, with music direction and arrangements by David Bloom.The show is choreographed by Natalie Lomonte and includes striking animation by Tom Seltzer. Strathmore partnered with Beth Morrison Projects in developing the full production.

Iron & Coal promises to be like no other recent musical production. It will be a distinctive evening of new programming at the Strathmore. “It also demonstrates our understanding that the performing arts play an essential role in elevating our social conscience, and we take great pride in supporting work that helps us reflect on history and bring fresh perspective to stories of strength and resilience,” added Joi Brown.

 

Iron & Coal will play two performances only, on Thursday, May 3, 2018, at 8 PM and Friday, Mary 4, 2018, at 8:00 PM at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (301) 0581-5100 or go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.