LONDON — Set in 1938 in Vienna and in London during the Blitz, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” tells the story of 14-year-old prodigy Lisa Jura, a young Jewish pianist who dreams about her concert debut at Vienna’s prestigious Musikverein concert hall.
Once Nazism grips Austria, however, everything for Jura changes — except her love of music — as she is separated from her family and sent to London on the Kindertransport. Along with 30 other refugee children, Jura is sent to a hostel at 243 Willesden Lane, north London.
Playing 14-year-old Jura on stage is renowned American concert pianist, Mona Golabek, her real-life daughter. A tale of trauma and hope amid a constant and sustaining love of music, Golabek’s 90-minute one-woman show, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” recounts the true story of her mother’s adolescent experience during World War II. Following sellout runs across the United States since its April 2012 debut, the production will be making its UK premiere in London’s West End later this month.
Underpinning the story are live piano performances by Golabek, taken from the classical piano repertoire, including pieces by Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy.
Among the fascinating facets of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is how Golabek — a non-actor — begin to approach the role.
“I stumbled my way through it, I guess,” explains Golabek by phone from LA. “I remembered everything my mother told me in my piano lessons from when I was a child. She always told me that each piece of music tells a story. [Teaching] Chopin, she told me about Johnny ‘King Kong,’ a boy in the hostel, or Dina, who was her best friend.” Many of these stories and characters have been incorporated into the play’s narrative.
Although Golabek has now performed the show approximately 500 times, the personal challenges have not diminished. She has said that every performance is different, but there are some nights she can find it difficult to finish her lines.
“I work my way through it because I don’t want to fall into it. I want to be strong,” she says. Any reticence or possible emotional fallout is overridden by the fact that she views what she is doing as a privilege and a purpose.
For Golabek, there is particular poignancy in bringing the show to London.
“It’s the ultimate thing… I’m stunned that I have this opportunity to come and tell my mother’s story and to be able to say, ‘thank you,’” she says. “I’m alive today because of the generosity of the British people who took in 10,000 refugees.”
The play is adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, based on the structure of Golabek’s 2002 book, “The Children of Willesden Lane” that she co-wrote with journalist Lee Cohen. Felder, who is known for his acclaimed one-person concert dramas, explained that Golabek chased him for three years.
“It’s true, I would fly everywhere. I would meet with him wherever he was performing,” she admits. Finally, he heard what she had prepared.
“I said that in order to adapt this play I wanted to hear it out of her mouth; I wanted to hear the most honest telling of it,” Felder explains.
According to Golabek, Felder “has really invented this genre in many ways – he’s a complete genius with what he does. I had a dream to bring my mother’s story to the stage and I never thought he’d take me under his wing.”
The Steinway grand piano that accompanies Golabek on stage is essentially a character in its own right.
“The music is the heart and soul of this story,” Golabek says.
Her grandparents — both of whom died in Auschwitz — only had one ticket but three daughters. Music was the reason her mother was chosen and put on the train to England. Golabek’s grandmother, also a pianist, had felt that the piano would give Jura the strength to survive. Her last words to her daughter at the train station in Vienna in 1938 were to never stop playing. “My grandmother told her, ‘Hold onto your music. It will be your best friend in life.’”
All the piano pieces in the show are carefully chosen and reflect the music that Golabek’s mother studied and played. Most significant is the Grieg Piano Concerto, which she played as her professional debut. It is also a motif that runs throughout the play.
Yet, in such a show, there is a danger that music can stop or distract the story, says Felder. “Here, I had to be very crafty about how it brings value, balances with the story,” he says.
‘Hold onto your music. It will be your best friend in life’
In 2003 Golabek founded educational organization, Hold On To Your Music. Inspired by Jura’s story, its mission is to expand awareness and understanding of the ethical implications of world events, such as the Holocaust, as well as “spread messages about identity, moral responsibility, tolerance, and artistic appreciation.”
The foundation managed to introduce the use of Golabek and Cohen’s book into the US school curriculum, which was galvanized by the success of massive live readings where thousands of students read the book and then experience an abridged version of the show. Golabek recently took part in one, in Chicago, with 7,000 students.
After WWII, her mother went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She moved to Paris and then to America where she began teaching music. Jura died in 1997, aged 73.
Golabek says that her mother always maintained contact with the children she met in the hostel and in 1999, when Golabek and her sister were in the UK for 60th reunion of the Kindertransport, they walked down Willesden Lane to see the house, with Hans, one of the former residents.
Golabek is still shocked at the success of bringing her mother’s story to a wider audience. She says that the play has taken over her life, with further runs planned in America and she hopes to bring it to Vienna.
Golabek is driven by a desire to tell the story of her mother’s strength and spirit for it to be an inspiration to others. Although she admits that she has little time to perform as a concert pianist, she says, “I really see this as my mission now.”
‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ runs from January 20 through February 27, 2016 at St James Theatre, London