A Fictional flight Launched by WWII’s ‘Lili Marlene’
The song, “Lili Marlene,” was one of the most popular ditties of World War II, beloved by Allied and Axis soldiers alike for its tale of a soldier lamenting how war had separated him from his sweetheart.
The lyrics came from a World War I-era poem by the German author Hans Liep, which was set to music by composer Norbert Schulze in 1938.
But the tune struck Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, as antiwar, and he promptly banned it from the airwaves. Goebbels changed his mind after a Third Reich radio station in Belgrade, having lost most of its records in a bombing, began playing the song because it was one of the few albums that had survived the shelling. Axis soldiers went wild over the recording, sung by Lale Andersen. The song went on to be played every hour on the hour in Germany — and Allied troops listening to Radio Belgrade also became enamored of the wartime love anthem.
Los Angeles musical theater writer-composer Michael Antin, 78, first heard the tune as a boy on the radio during World War II — specifically, the version that had been later recorded by film star Marlene Dietrich. “ ‘Lili Marlene’ is just a beautiful, wonderful song, and certainly the throaty, heavy voice of Marlene Dietrich riveted me,” Antin said in a telephone interview from San Francisco.
Memories of hearing the tune — which was eventually translated into English — helped inspire Antin’s new musical, “Lili Marlene,” now in its world premiere at the Write Act Repertory at the BrickHouse Theatre in North Hollywood through April 16.
In the show, Antin transforms Anderson into a fictional Jewish cabaret chanteuse, Rosie Penn, who hides her religious identity even as she repeatedly sings “Lili Marlene” on Nazi radio in 1933. At the same time, she romances a non-Jewish count, Willi, who is also forging passports to enable Jews to escape the Reich. His endeavors may ultimately help Rosie flee the country, along with his anti-Nazi niece, Janine, a medical student, and his 14-year-old nephew, Jacob.
As a boy in Beverly Hills, Antin attended Temple Beth Am and later taught confirmation classes at Temple Emanuel. At a young age, he began studying music with his mother, a piano teacher, as well as attending Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals at the Shrine Auditorium.
Antin worked odd jobs to put himself through UCLA, then law school at UC Berkeley. He became a tax attorney and also taught law at universities throughout the country for 45 years, until he retired on March 31, 2008.
A day later, he visited a local piano teacher in his quest to begin composing musical theater even though he had no previous experience. Nevertheless, he went on to write a number of shows, including 2015’s “Renewal,” inspired by a Jewish woman he had known who had struggled to recover from a disfiguring car crash.
Last year, his show “Pillars of New York,” about survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, was staged after a visit to the World Trade Center memorial that moved Antin to tears.
“Lili Marlene” began when Antin’s producer, John Lant, suggested that he write a prequel to explore the origins of Jake, a psychologist who was a recurring character in four of the author’s earlier plays.
“Lili Marlene” reveals how Jake was once Jacob, Willi’s nephew, who seeks out a career in mental health, in part, in response to the ordeal his family endured before escaping the Nazis.
“Lili Marlene,” whose music is inspired by that of Richard Rodgers, also draws on the experience of Antin’s wife, Evelyn, who was born in the United States four months after her family’s flight from Germany in the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938.
“I wanted to explore the developing concerns that occurred for people who had foresight,” he said of those prescient enough to run from the Nazis. “I wondered, ‘What’s the psyche to be that kind of a person, and to have that kind of sense? … I also want audiences to understand the thread of freedom and democracy that can come from evil.”
For tickets and information about “Lili Marlene,” call (800) 838-3006, ext. 1, or visit writeactreptheatre.org.