In the Czech opera Brundibar, two children go to town to fetch fresh milk for their sick mother. A villain thwarts their attempt to sing to raise money for milk, but they best the bully with the aid of a trio of animals and a chorus of brave youngsters. This good-triumphing-over-evil story has been reshaped into a picture book by Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright Tony Kushner and Caldecott Medalist Maurice Sendak, who were both drawn to its unique and chilling history.
The book, due in November from Hyperion/Michael di Capua Books with a 250,000-copy first printing, is based on a 1938 opera of the same name, featuring a libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, set to music by Hans Krása. The opera was originally performed 55 times by the children of Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp. Most of the young performers were subsequently deported to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers. Krása was also imprisoned at Terezin and was killed at Auschwitz in 1944.
Sendak, who came across the opera several years back, explained that discovering it "was not a random thing. I have a huge collection of books that have to do with the war and the Holocaust. The story of the opera Brundibar and the children performing it in the camp is well known and I had stumbled upon it again and again without connecting myself to it. As I got to know Tony, I realized that he shared my passion about this era and that this moment in the history of the Holocaust was made for us."
Kushner recalled his initial reaction to the story: "I was immediately moved by its beauty as a parable of collective action against injustice. What Maurice partly intended was to make his own elegy, his own requiem for the children who perished in the camps who were the same age he was at the time."
Sendak, who has created sets and costumes for numerous theatrical productions, first envisioned his collaboration with Kushners as a stage production. Working from a literal English translation of the original Czech libretto, the playwright adapted the opera, which was performed last June by the Chicago Opera Theater. "After Maurice read what I'd written," Kushner said, "he called me and said he was beginning to think he'd like to do a book based on the opera."
The playwright, who is 30 years younger than Sendak and had long admired his books before the two became friends, readily agreed. "I was literally raised on Sendak books," he commented. "A Hole Is to Dig and Nutshell Library were my favorite books as a child. After graduating from Columbia, I was working at a bookstore where he was doing assigning. He signed my copy of The Juniper Tree but I was too shy to actually talk to him. Now I can't quite believe that we have done a book together. I am happy with the text, since I think it works to serve the drawings, which I believe are among the best of his career."
A Joint Effort
Sendak easily finds mutual praise for his collaborator; as he noted, "Tony had never written a book for children and I have never had a more apt and agreeable student in my life. Sometimes I told him that with the words he had written, there was no need for pictures, so he should take the words out. I believe that words lead to pictures and pictures lead to words and they can't crowd each other out. Sometimes he agreed and would take the words out and sometimes he'd tell me to go to hell."
Michael di Capua, Sendak's editor since the two worked on Randall Jarrell's The Bat Poet together in 1964, echoes the artist's admiration for Kushner's work on Brundibar. "Tony is an amazing playwright and essayist, but he knew nothing about children's books," he said. "He plunged right in and was eager for help. Like the best writers, he was able to discriminate between good and bad editorial advice. When I was on the receiving end of his 'go to hell' comments, I realized that he was right."
Kushner commented that his first foray into writing for children "didn't really seem that hard—it actually felt really familiar to me," but he acknowledged that his first draft of the text "was a botch. I did it in rhymed verse. At first Maurice said he liked it and then I forced him to tell me how he really felt. I went back and thought it through again. What I had missed in the rhymed version should have been the easiest thing for me to realize as a playwright: for the most part the book was going to be read aloud."
"Once I had this as a premise, it began to come together," Kushner continued. "I came to realize that there were things I didn't need to say, since Maurice was showing them. He creates a whole story that doesn't exist in words."
For Sendak, too, Brundibar represents a first in his career, as he has never before worked with this combination of colored pencils, crayons and brush pens. "I've always worked with watercolor and pencil. When I started the book, I was desperate for it to look stylistically different but I didn't know in what way," he explained. "Good fortune put me one day in the same place as Jules Feiffer, and Jules took me to his studio, where he has a gorgeous array of brushes, which I found terrifying. They create extraordinary color but one can make such dramatic mistakes using them. But Jules showed me how to use them and I finally got the hang of it."
Kushner said that he "would jump at the chance" to do another collaboration with Sendak. "Maurice is 75 and I and his other friends are encouraging him to focus on things he feels an urgency to do," he said. "I'm immensely proud to have been connected with this project and I certainly consider it a peak of my career."