Theater from the trenches | News | Palo Alto Online |


Theater from the trenches

Stanford stages 'Oh, What a Lovely War!'

Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium was erected to honor those who lost their lives in the Great War, which stretched from 1914 to 1918. It is fitting, then, that Stanford's Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) is commemorating the conflict and its continued impact with a production of the musical satire "Oh, What a Lovely War!" -- performed at Pigott Theater in that very auditorium complex.

Now 100 years in the past, World War I ushered in the modern era with four years of gruesome bloodshed and unfathomable destruction. It ripped apart the sociopolitical fabric of Europe and left much of the world's youth dead or forever damaged, a "lost generation."

Musical comedy may not be the first association that comes to mind, but the war also left its mark on popular culture, especially through song, which "Oh, What a Lovely War!" uses as its foundation.

The show's dark humor is evident from its title, taken from a 1917 hit. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics and jaunty music-hall melody -- "Up to your waist in water/ up to your eyes in slush/ using the kind of language that makes the sergeant blush" -- set the tone for the musical's striking juxtaposition of cheery propaganda numbers and stirring patriotic songs against the grim realities of life in the trenches and the divide between the common soldier and the upper classes.

Created by groundbreaking British director Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in 1963, the show lets the music itself, with all songs originally written during the war years, tell the story.

"It's sort of a musical documentary in that way," director Leslie Hill said, adding that letters and journal entries also served as primary sources.

Stanford's production is the culmination of its annual Undergraduate Performance Project, an intensive TAPS course. In addition to performing, all cast members also studied and researched the play, the songs and the WWI period extensively under the tutelage of Hill and co-director Helen Paris, both of whom are Stanford theater professors and co-creators of the London-based Curious theater company.

"We chose it because this production gave so many important and exciting and diverse learning opportunities for student actors," Paris said. The student cast has been training in the same ways Theatre Workshop members did for the original production, following in Littlewood's legendary footsteps.

And while as a musical it's "entertaining and full of great songs," it also demonstrates the power of political theater. "I wanted to do a piece with the students that makes them aware of it," she said.

The show is made up of musical vignettes: some comic, some heartbreaking, and many both -- such as the story of the "Christmas Truce," in which soldiers on both sides call a cease-fire on Christmas Eve to play games, trade gifts and sing "Silent Night" together in No Man's Land. It's a moment of touching humanity among the carnage that also illustrates the disconnect between the common soldiers and the remote leaders in command. The story reveals "the awful atrocity of war, superseded by humanity that transcends political difference," Paris said.

Songs such as "Forward Joe Soap's Army" give low-ranking infantrymen the chance to poke bitter fun at their cowardly commanders, with lyrics describing the soldiers "marching without fear/ with our old commander safely in the rear/He boasts and skits from morn 'til night and thinks he's very brave/ but the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave."

Freshman actor Charlotte Dubach-Reinhold said her favorite number is the poignant "Keep the Home Fires Burning," which she and another actor sing while portraying nurses. The lyrics encourage the sweethearts and families of soldiers to stay strong until their loved ones come home. Of course, many never did.

She called the song a striking distillation of the complicated emotions present in the show -- "a sense of pride for the self-sacrificing men, a disgust at the politicos pulling the strings, and a resolute decision to help one another and carry on."

For its undergraduate actors, the show is a "rewarding challenge," she said, offering students a unique training opportunity, including the chance to work with movement and dialect coaches. All 13 cast members play multiple roles, often times requiring them to switch between numerous accents, including Cockney, French, German, Irish, Lancashire and Serbian.

"It demands a lot from them, but it's a great sort-of actor boot camp," Hill said.

One of cast member James Seifert's favorite roles is British Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, whom he considers the villain of the piece.

"He acts for the glory of God and Empire, and it's fascinating to search for the humanity in a person directly responsible for the millions of lives lost in World War I," Seifert said.

He cited as especially powerful a scene in which German machine guns mow down the French cavalry.

"I think it will shock viewers. It's definitely a wild, thought-provoking ride," he said.

On stage, headlines, statistics and historical photos taken over the course of the war will be displayed onto an LED wall. Stanford's McCoy Center for Ethics in Society has also sponsored the creation of an elaborate program that will further educate audiences on some of the songs, background information and ethical issues the students researched in class.

The taught-class component "gives us times to study things that you wouldn't have time for in a normal rehearsal," Hill said, with students diving deep into the history of the period -- as well as the history behind the piece itself -- and the acting techniques used by Littlewood's company.

Hill and Paris, who are also associated with Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, hope to encourage female theater students to become directors, with Littlewood's legacy as inspiration.

Some students had only a vague knowledge of the war prior to taking the course.

"I hadn't fully realized how terrible the conditions were: muddy water up to your knees, constant explosions and machine-gun sounds, more death from sickness than from being shot," freshman Hannah Miller said.

"I've learned about the nuances of the major players in the war, as well as the shocking amount of cover-up and nationalistic glossing-over that was done to the war at the time and in the years since," Dubach-Reinhold said.

Through the songs and statistics of what was to be "the war to end all wars," the show brings a sharp critique of war profiteers and the military-industrial complex and proves that popular music was as powerful a vehicle for expression a century ago as it was in the 1960s when Littlewood created the show and as it is to this day.

"It speaks not just to that war but all the wars that have happened and the wars that are yet to happen," Paris said. "Our students really respond to that because they are engaged and political and alert to the currency of the piece both then and now.

What: "Oh, What a Lovely War!" presented by Stanford TAPS

When: March 3-5 at 8 p.m.; March 6 at 2 p.m.

Where: Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium complex, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford

Cost: $5-$15 (tickets sales online only)

Info: Visit or email

See more: Video taken during rehearsal can be viewed at the Weekly's YouTube channel.

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