Jewish Journal

Survivor: The Musical

A determined composer finds a way to bring cash to 'Haven.'

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Jun. 14, 2001 at 8:00 pm

William Goldstein

William Goldstein

It was early June, and the clock was ticking ominously for composer William Goldstein.

He'd already written the score for "Oswego: An American Haven," a musical about the rescue of 982 refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, based on Ruth Gruber's memoir. There were lyrics by Joe Darion of "Man of La Mancha" and a book by Broadway dramatist Jerome Coopersmith. The University of Judaism (UJ) had offered free space to mount the production. And public interest in the story was high following CBS' February miniseries, "Haven," starring Natasha Richardson.

Problem was, the producers had only until mid-June -- the UJ's deadline -- to raise about $250,000 to finance the show. "I wasn't sure where the money was going to come from," Goldstein confided. "We came very close to complete failure."

But "Oswego" had a secret weapon: Goldstein himself. Though the 59-year-old composer had no previous fundraising experience, he had stepped forward when producers nearly backed out of the project some eight months ago. "They wanted to put off the show for a year," said Goldstein, who has been enamored of Gruber's book for years. "But I said, 'No, the time is now. I'll do it with or without you.'"

And so as mid-June loomed, the composer redoubled his efforts, making dozens of telephone calls, taking meetings on both coasts, cutting a deal with the actors union, following every possible lead.

He called Steven Spielberg.

He schmoozed at a shiva call.

And by late last week, triumph was at hand. A prominent investor, Robert Block, helped bring in other key investors, including major players in the theater world. About $250,000 was ready to be deposited in the bank.

Goldstein, who says he's "put his entire life on hold" for "Oswego," breathed a sigh of relief. "I felt a moment of peacefulness," he said.

When you consider Goldstein's background, it's not surprising he raised all that money without a whit of experience. After all, when he was a boy, he taught himself to play the piano without any training.

At the age of 4, he discovered a piano in a corner of his father's hotel at the New Jersey shore and began tapping out tunes he remembered from records or the movies. By age 18, he'd composed a piece that was performed by a professional orchestra, though he'd just learned to notate music. In the 1970s, Motown signed him as an artist-composer-producer. Ultimately, he scored the prime-time series "Fame" and other TV projects.

Nevertheless, Goldstein never quite forgot the Holocaust survivors he'd met as a child at his father's hotel. ("Some never turned off the lights at night," he recalled.)

In the 1980s, he began a series of projects that, in a way, are devoted to those survivors. He accepted a fraction of his usual salary to score the indie film "The Quarrel," in which two Jews argue about faith in the aftermath of the Shoah. He donated his royalties from the TV movie "Miracle at Midnight," about the rescue of the Danish Jews, to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And he toiled for years to bring his old friend Gruber's book, "Haven," to the stage or screen.

Soon after the 1983 volume was published, he began taking Gruber around to producers, but no one was interested, he said.

Then, in the early 1990s, Gruber informed him that her screenwriting teacher, Jerome Coopersmith, wanted to make "Haven" into a musical. "I called and said, 'I have to be part of this,'" Goldstein recalled.

Is a Holocaust-tinged story appropriate fare for a musical? Goldstein said "I never imagined a musical was doable," he admitted. "But when I heard [Coopersmith's] ideas, I knew I was wrong."

Goldstein was also wrong when he took on the brunt of the fundraising eight months ago. He thought savvy producers would flock to the project. "I was naive," he said. "The people we approached didn't see this as something that would play well in the Midwest or have broad appeal."

Then there was the problem of the theater itself. "At least with the movies, you have the option to make money with video and foreign sales," Goldstein explained. "But if a musical doesn't take off, then it's just over."

Whether or not "Oswego" goes on to regional theaters and ultimately to Broadway depends on the success of the four-week UJ run, which begins Oct. 25.

But don't tell Goldstein that the refugee story might not draw musical-theater audiences. The piece has a happy ending, he points out. "And the more people say they don't get it, the more I know they're wrong," he insisted.

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