Spanish Civil War musical screened in New York

March 21, 2014
The cast at the musical’s presentation in Barcelona, Sept. 2013.

The cast at the musical’s presentation in Barcelona, Sept. 2013.

Goodbye Barcelona, a new Spanish Civil War musical that was screened by ALBA at the Spanish Benevolent Society in New York last December, emerges as an engaging narrative of the personal impact of war. Like tethers wrapped around a pole, the play intertwines the lives of two English citizens who volunteer to aid the Spanish Republic with a diverse group of volunteer soldiers and civilians. A story that longs to free the oppressed and the outnumbered, Goodbye Barcelona captures an element of the human spirit that wants to save, that wants to believe in the power of good over evil. Accompanied by a pleasurable score from composer K. S. Lewkowicz, the play is fluid and full of intent.

The premise of Goodbye Barcelona could have worked solely as a play. However, the narrative strays away from being a history lesson and rather adapts the love story to the war—a story told in song. The characters are ordinary, familiar individuals, challenging existential questions of life and purpose. The intensity of the play’s context continually builds and finds a release through vocal performance. The lyrics of the songs in Goodbye Barcelona arguably lack a complex composition—for example, “We will always remember. We will never forget” is taken from La Pasionaria’s farewell address—it is the musical score and vocal performances that carry the production. By including La Pasionaria as a fixture of promise, the audience is treated to two stellar solo performances, physically arranged to convey a radio broadcast. The intention of Goodbye Barcelona is evident in these moments when the power of the human voice is enough to captivate the audience.

The props and set are minimalistic and well calculated. The façade of theater requires an agreement of components, and for this production, an almost nonexistent display of material goods adds to the credibility of the soldiers and supporters of the Republic. Using sheets as a backdrop for barracks and a simple arrangement of furniture to illustrate the interior structure, the negative space speaks loudly of their impoverished state. The audience absorbs the sparse conditions. The costumes are neutral, except for Pilar’s red blouse, a sultry distinction from the rest of the cast. The overall drab wardrobe, props, and set prime Goodbye Barcelona for the gray outlook of its circumstance.  The effect is still powerful and successful.

While the conflict between Nationalists and Republicans is the backdrop to the play, the real conflict occurs on a more personal level for the characters. The audience sees what lies under the gun smoke. These characters are losing their stability and adapting to a new point of view. The majority of the main characters are not represented as bitter or stubborn. In fact, they adjust to their circumstances rather quickly. This sense of survival is key to the purpose of Goodbye Barcelona.

Jack, one of the men in Sammy’s brigade, is the antithesis of the other characters’ spirit. A veteran of World War I, Jack is a disgruntled leader of his team, jaded by his experience, and resentful of his circumstance. He is a strong contrast to the innocent Sammy, providing a realistic account of what to expect from war: loss and destruction. In the most poignant scene, Sammy and Jack are under siege from a surprise attack by fascist soldiers. The two men speak to one another candidly, offering words that wouldn’t be shared without death staring back at them. Both men run into a line of fire hoping to reach the nearby trench. As they fall, and the lights go out on stage, we expect that one man has not survived.

How did Judith Johnson decide who to save? Both men symbolize powerful forces: Sammy is the innocent, the instinct that wants to bring justice for the abused and downtrodden. Jack is the inevitable, the disagreeable reality confronting everyone at every turn. He is war and he survives. Watching Jack emerge onstage, during the score “Goodbye Barcelona,” the audience knows Sammy will not be coming back. Although Republican forces fought selflessly, they were outnumbered and ultimately couldn’t keep the enemy at bay.

Goodbye Barcelona, with its musical structure and love narrative, offers a familiar entry into the Spanish Civil War. Even if audiences don’t have a thorough understanding of Spain’s circumstance in the 1930’s, they will recognize the themes of oppression and the spirit of the underdog. While the content of both the dialogue and lyrics could be more developed, the score of this musical successfully captures the characters’ emotions as well as the emotions of the audience. Goodbye Barcelona has enough of a mainstream appeal to have a successful showing on the main stages of London, Barcelona, and perhaps even one day, New York.

Mia Jozwick is a graduate student in English Literature at The City College of New York.