When the Czechs overthrew the Nazis in 1945, Czech radio signaled the victory to the nation by playing the opening chorus of "The Bartered Bride," the Czech national opera. When the Soviet yoke was overthrown in 1989, the Czechs sang Beatles songs.
The disparity says a lot about newly liberated Eastern Europe and about "Metro," a musical the Poles have sent us.
Eastern Europe's desire to rid itself of Communism was accompanied not by a hunger to return to its own historic traditions of liberalism but by a yearning for the trivial notions of freedom and liberation symbolized by Western rock culture. The East wanted to join the West in prolonged adolescence.
That they have understood perfectly the regressive nature of our current concepts of freedom is apparent in the number that closes "Metro." It is called "Freedom," and the opening lyrics declare, "We are The People...We are The Children."
"Metro" has a plot that will remind Westerners of "A Chorus Line" and "Hair." It concerns a production being done by a state theater in Warsaw.
A bunch of street performers who have not been hired decide to put on their own show in the Metro. Since Warsaw does not have a subway, we are already in mythical territory; underground transport is a symbol, I guess, of something subversive, something profound since it's below the surface.
The street performers, under the direction of a free spirit, eventually get a better review than the state theater, which is run by the free spirit's pompous brother. He invites all the performers he rejected into his theater, a symbol of the establishment bowing before an insurgency with which it cannot compete.
Though all these images have great resonance for the Eastern Europeans, "Metro" will likely strike Westerners as a naive return to 1968, with its innocent faith in both The People and The Children.
Lyrics like "Give me a cause I can fight for/ Give me a wrong I can do right for" make us feel we've entered a time warp.
I suspect the sensible way to have produced this show would have been to charter planes to bring Westerners to see it in Warsaw, where its hopeful idealism would probably be thrilling in the context of a society rebuilding itself. To see it in a city victimized in no small part by its fidelity to flower-child politics is less inspiring.
It is, of course, rousing to see the young cast, many of whom have been imported from Poland, dance and sing with invigorating abandon. They do impressive acrobatics and a spiffy clog dance with tin cans on their shoes.
The laser show that accompanies their gyrations is also fun, though it too suggests how rapidly Western theatrical ideas have gained ground in the East - they have seen immediately that grand technology makes the dreariness of tie-dye skirts and floppy hats more palatable.
Janusz Stoklosa's music is appealing and pleasant, though it, too, strikes our ears as nostalgic, drawing on a range of Western sources, mostly rock, but including, if I'm not mistaken, Richard Addinsell (the composer of "The Warsaw Concerto"). The songs are particularly well sung by Katarzyna Groniec and Robert Janowski, but the chorus handles some stirring harmonies beautifully.
As a political and cultural statement, "Metro" is quite touching. As an evening of entertainment, it seems mainly like an amiable trip down memory lane.
Let us be generous, let us be fair, but let us also be honest. The new Broadway musical "Metro," which arrived at the Minskoff Theater last night from, of all places, Warsaw, Poland, is not going to set the Hudson on fire.
With all the good will in the world - and this wannabe musical emerging into the light like a refugee left over from the warmed-up Cold War has an appeal resembling that of a wild flower growing on a bomb-site - "Metro" is more successfully sincere than sincerely successful.
It is an extraordinary grab-bag of themes and attitudes, techniques and styles, with a winningly youthful cast whose sheer and even infectious enthusiasm goes far in masking the gaping hole between the show's aspirations and its achievements.
"Metro," a love story, apparently grew as the brainchild of the director Janusz Jozefowicw and composer Janusz Stoklosa, who, encouraged by a new-wave Polish entrepreneur Wiktor Kubiak, have done a sort of Mickey-and-Judy act in the cliche/classic "let's put on a show" spirit.
"Metro" - which is sung in an English which is gallantly fragmented but generally intelligible - set "somewhere in Europe," obviously to the East of the former Berlin Wall, starts from the premise of a theater director Philip (Jozefowicw himself) holding auditions, with his authoritarian sidekick Max (Mariusz Czajka), for a new but, seemingly, conventional show.
Meanwhile, in the depths of the subway system, Philip's non-conformist but wildly talented brother, Jan (Robert Janowski), is playing his guitar and dreaming (shades of "Hair") his dreams.
Many people turn up to Philip's auditions (shades of "Chorus Line") but they are all apparently rejected, including a particularly lovable kook Anka (Katarzyna Groniec), who has already made Jan's acquaintance overnight in the Metro.
Somehow the audition rejects now also turn up in the Metro, where unexpectedly Jan molds them into a fully-fledged Broadway show. Philip and Max hear of this, and come down and lure them away to the theater with the call of capitalism - for "this is a free country, we have to make money."
But Jan refuses to compromise, saying of his brother: "He knows what he wants, I only know what I don't want." So, repudiating his feelings for the lovelorn Anka, Jan decides to stay underground. In a kind of epilogue - seemingly years later - Anka, now in a white fur coat and presumably a major star of either strge, screen or radio, comes to the subway, to lament: "Dreams Don't Die." Don't they?
The original book and lyrics by Agata and Maryna Miklaszewska (they have been Englished by Mary Bracken Philips and the ubiquitous Jozefowicz) are scarcely original, even though they may be different.
The music by Stoklosa proves a mixture of rather plaintive '30s lyricism, with a little rock thrown in and, particularly for the love music, a hefty dollop of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schonberg. (Now, here's a switch, for who would have expected anything being derivative of them.)
The staging is equally eclectic. There is a little classic ballet (the choreography is also by Jozefowicz), jazz-style dancing, acrobatics, even Polish break-dancing. There are very good laser lights reminiscent of more ambitious pop shows, fluorescent effects taken from the Black Theater of Prague, and an effectively protean permanent setting on a turntable by Janusz Sosnowski largely consisting of an architectural configuration of steps that renders sterling service during the evening.
The whole production exudes a faintly avant-garde air - which you might expect from Poland, which after all was the home of Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor, directors still far in advance of any working on Broadway. But the adventurousness of that old-style Polish theater ironically seems to have been forgotten in this present anxiety for commercial acceptance.
What we are left with is a seemingly impossible dream, and the memory of some very engaging and desperately intense performers. And they are very appealing - but considering the painfully conventional music, such appeals might be best addressed to deaf ears.
What's the Polish word for fiasco?
Whatever it is, I'm not sure even it is adequate to describe the unique experience that is "Metro," the hit Warsaw musical that arrived on Broadway last night.
Here is a show that wants nothing more than to imitate "A Chorus Line," and where is it playing? Not just in New York City, but at the cavernous Minskoff, right across Shubert Alley from the theater where the original "Chorus Line" ran for only about 15 years! It's one thing to carry coals to Newcastle, but a whole coal mine?
Purportedly costing $5 million, this show is "A Chorus Line" as it might have been produced by the Festrunk brothers, those wild and crazy Eastern European swingers that Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin used to play on "Saturday Night Live." Gloomy and jerky, "Metro" often looks as if it is taking its cues from a faded 10th-generation bootleg videocassette of the film version of its Broadway prototype, with a reel of "Hair" thrown in by mistake. The score, by Janusz Stoklosa, mixes fragments of ersatz Hamlisch with heavily miked Europop, though the music, too, sounds muted and distorted, as if in imitation of West European radio stations in the days when their signals still battled Soviet jamming on their way East. Should "Metro" be indicative of how our mass-cultural debris is filtering into the new Europe, America has a lot more to answer for than just Euro Disneyland.
The show's book, as translated into less-than-colloquial English, has to do with several dozen ragtag young street performers variously dressed in torn jeans and tutus who audition for an autocratic director assembling a new musical. When they fail to get jobs, they stage a rival show in the subway, and it proves so successful that capitalists start throwing money at them. "I think things were easier under the Communists," says one of the characters, who are torn between pure artistic principles and the Faustian prospect of selling out to show-biz commerce. Given "Metro" itself, the resolution of this moral drama is never in doubt.
The evening has a little bit of everything, including break-dancing, a love story, gymnastics, laser-light displays, a tap routine and for a socko finish, a suicide. The spare black set is dominated by a large post-Constructivist staircase that rotates on a turntable and by subway signs that spell out the alluring word Exit in a wide variety of languages. Periodically the cast pushes forward en masse and at the edge of the stage vehemently delivers a song that is the "Metro" answer to "Let the Sun Shine In." Though lyrics like "We are the children!" and "We are the people!" are repeatedly punctuated by loud cries of "Freedom!" the number does not significantly alter the audience's impression that it has landed in jail.
As Janis Joplin once sang, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. You have to feel sorry for the kids in "Metro," who work extremely hard, singing and dancing with unflagging energy in pursuit of starry-eyed dreams. If only New York City had a heart, someone might treat them to a steak dinner and maybe even tickets to a Broadway show.