New Off-Broadway Play Examines a Fascinating Jewish Story
For years, playwright and screenwriter Allan Leicht had wanted to tell the story of composer Richard Wagner — a known antisemite — and his Jewish friend who conducted his opera, Parsifal. (Parsifal is a three-act Christian opera based on the 13th-century poem “Parzival” by Wolfram von Eschenbach, about Arthurian knight Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail.) But Leicht was busy with his acting and writing career, and had to put creating his dream play on hold.
But five years ago, the time seemed right, and Leicht penned the play My Parsifal Conductor. After teaming up with a production company, and putting together a stellar cast and director, the play is now running Off-Broadway in New York City at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater through November 3.
Leicht, a native New Yorker who has written for numerous television shows including Kate and Allie, Mariah, The Thorns, and Ryan’s Hope, and who wrote the acclaimed TV film Adam, about the kidnapped Adam Walsh, had been curious about Wagner growing up. “Years ago, I read about Hermann Levi, who was the son of a rabbi and one of Wagner’s most important conductors,” he says. “I was fascinated about their longtime friendship. Some thought Levi was disloyal becoming one of Wagner’s conductors, but the relationship between Wagner and Levi was complicated.”
When King Ludwig ll of Bavaria insisted that Levi conduct Wagner’s final masterpiece, Parsifal, Wagner’s wife, Cosima, was very much opposed. Levi was a huge star in the 19th century, a very fine pianist and composer himself, comparable to Leonard Bernstein, but Cosima felt strongly he should not be the one to conduct it. “Cosima didn’t mind that Levi conducted her husband’s other operas, but Parsifal was different,” says Leicht. “Cosima was a deeply religious woman and was tormented by the idea of having a Jew conduct an opera that she considered to be an expression of the mysteries of Christianity. It was no mere music-drama, but ‘a festival play for the consecration of the stage.’”
In the end, in 1882, Levi did wind up conducting the opera. When writing the play, Leicht, who is Orthodox, thought the best way to portray the story was through humor. “I thought because of its incongruity — antisemitism, Judaism, and German opera — that’s the stuff of comedy: a comedy about antisemitism, about the irrationality of antisemitism,” says Leicht, who has won Emmy and Writer’s Guild awards.
In Leicht’s play, Wagner and Cosima find themselves in a moral, political, and musical dilemma, and Cosima spends her last night on earth reliving her past and contemplating her after-life. Levi causes Cosima and Wagner to try and control their antisemitic views.
When asked what he hopes the audience will walk away with after seeing his play, Leicht says that he hopes they ask questions. “I hope audiences leave with questions. What is prejudice? Bigotry? How do we tolerate it? In this case it’s antisemitism, but it could be any kind of prejudice. It’s very difficult to admit that we admire people like Wagner or Dostoevsky, or poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who were gifted artists and at the same time genuine antisemites. We like bad guys to wear black hats. But in this case, we have Mr. and Mrs. Wagner, who were both very intelligent, sensitive people. He was arguably the most important artist in the Western world, but had this bad side. Where did it come from?”
When Leicht, who lives in New York City and is also an Israeli citizen, isn’t working, he is busy with his family. He has three children and two grandchildren. His wife, Renee Lippin Leicht is an actress who appeared in the Woody Allen films Stardust Memories, Celebrity, and Radio Days, starred in the 1972 film Portnoy’s Complaint, and was on the Bob Newhart Show.
After the Off-Broadway run, Leicht hopes his play will get moved to a production in a larger theater. “I think it’s a fascinating story that people can relate to today,” he says. “For one thing, Richard Wagner was not exactly monogamous and left many an affair in his wake. He would be a candidate for the ‘Me, Too’ movement, except that most of his conquests seem to have been quite willing. It may not be for me to say, but My Parsifal Conductor is a very funny play. Look, two unapologetic antisemites in close friendship with the descendant of a long line of rabbis. As Cosima says, ‘Twelve rabbis conducting Parsifal.’”