‘Shanghai Sonatas’ receives world premiere: Displaced Jews and Chinese under Japanese occupation
Neal Mayor, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Adam B. Shapiro, Drew McVety, Juliet Petrus, Xiaoqing Zhang, Ethan Le Phong, Julian Remulla, Caítlín Burke, Sara LaFlamme / Rob Latour/Shutterstock

BEVERLY HILLS — Some day, I don’t know how soon, Shanghai Sonatas will be playing in major theaters to enthusiastic audiences around the country. For now, let the record note, the world premiere production (in concert) took place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in collaboration with the University of Delaware Master Players Concert Series and in part sponsored by the Holocaust Museum Los Angeles and radio station KCRW, in four performances from March 16-18, 2023. People’s World attended the first.

Let there be no misunderstanding: This is a full-blown American musical, with all its requisite parts (though because of the limitations of a not fully staged presentation, the dance episodes had to be only indicated at best). The fact that it is set in the “Paris of the East,” an exotic locale, Shanghai during World War II, is only one of its unique features.

Despite the somewhat formulaic nature of a commercial musical, there is much about the setting, the characters and the score to make this a singular entry in the catalogue. The originality of the concept and the generally high quality of both book and score combine to make the musical’s popular success, well, not guaranteed, because there are still many hoops to leap through before it gets to Broadway, but certainly possible and even likely.

Shanghai Sonatas bears comparison to Barry Manilow’s Harmony, about a male singing group in Germany as the Nazis tighten their grip. These musicals are not about the Holocaust per se, but we all know what lurks behind the scenes. Shanghai Sonatas is about Jewish refugee musicians from Central Europe finding sanctuary in the wide-open Chinese city where every manner of global misfit, adventurer and refugee wound up in the chaos of war. Ultimately it’s a winning tale of how the unifying and healing power of music brings cultures together.

A Jewish ghetto in Shanghai

From left, Xiaoqing Zhang, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Sara LaFlamme, Caítlín Burke / Rob Latour/Shutterstock

At first, the Jewish refugees were left relatively undisturbed as they found their footing in this strange new place, trying to figure out where to live and how to survive. But as the Japanese assumed greater control over the city and felt stronger pressure from their Nazi allies, the Jews were herded into a ghetto unable to travel about the city. Mold, bedbugs, rats, lice, floods, infested food, disease, death and the lack of basic sanitation were now their fate, like going back to the shtetl with a new set biblical plagues. Moreover, the Japanese military “king” in charge of the city forces the Jews to bow and remove their hats to him.

In the ghetto also are a large community of internal Chinese immigrants who had been forced to flee from their native provinces. On top of everything else of a material nature that they’ve lost, both the Jews and the Chinese sorely miss their musical traditions and now have no venue in which to express themselves. Jews and Chinese alike can agree that 1939 is the “Year of the Underdog.”

Some of the Jewish characters are sophisticated concert performers on violin or viola. Among them are a married couple, Rachel (Juliet Petrus) and Leo (Drew McVety). Leo managed to get released from Dachau and has made it to Shanghai, but he has been profoundly damaged by what he has suffered and witnessed. For him, music has lost its magic—it only reminds him of being forced to play “Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles” as his fellow Jews were being executed. Ernst (Adam B. Shapiro) is a classical orchestra violinist who longs to return home and play in the pit for his beloved Wagner opera Parsifal. These are all highly assimilated Jews at least a generation or two removed from the shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof, though the score often reminds us of these origins through its boisterous klezmer outbursts.

The Chinese characters in the musical are not mere extras, but equal partners in the drama. Leading them is Xiaoqing Zhang as Tan Hua, a former star of the Peking Opera. Now she, and other uprooted musical exiles from other parts of China, are performing as taxi dancers in a Shanghai nightclub catering to foreigners with American-style pop songs, where some of the Jews also have found employment playing Big Band cabaret music. Tan Hua’s son Ming-Kai, played by Ethan Le Phong, is still in deep mourning over the loss of his father, who was a Chinese classical musician. The father had gone off to fight in the resistance against the Japanese occupiers and was killed. As a result Ming-Kai has sworn that he will only play Chinese music in memory of his father.

There’s no reference to the various forces fighting the Japanese—principally the Communists and the Nationalists. No need to get into all that in a big commercially oriented musical, although there is a mention of the 1937 Nanking Massacre when the Japanese butchered some 200,000 men and raped over 20,000 women and girls. By the end, both the Jews and the Chinese learn of the vast numbers of their people who had been murdered, each in a Holocaust of their own.


And so the die is cast: The elder Leo, depressed and hopeless, having forsaken music, will be matched up with the young, troubled Ming-Kai, who is loaded with talent and ambition but has no outlet to express himself. Each is the salvation of the other, thanks to the urgings of the women in their lives. Upon liberation in 1945, Leo bestows his violin on his Chinese student, now an accomplished interpreter of Bach and the Western canon, and that instrument now rests in the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The proposition is that the whole embrace of classical Western music in post-war China sprang from that fortuitous encounter with the European Jews in Shanghai, as well as Harbin and perhaps a few other places.

The musical, which received its original workshop production in 2018, is based on first-person accounts of European musicians who used their musical talents to survive, forging friendships with their Chinese neighbors who saved their lives until the Allies land one fine morning to the sounds of a John Philip Sousa military march.

Over time, the Europeans gained some exposure to Chinese music. The only such music they had known at all was the tune Giacomo Puccini incorporated into his score for Turandot, which Rachel plays at a bicultural gathering. The Chinese respond with their music performed on the erhu, a common stringed instrument in the classical Chinese orchestra, which is incorporated into Beijing-born Sean (Xiang) Gao’s musical score.

In one scene the Parsifal-loving Ernst has to cover his ears when what sounds to him like out-of-tune screeching emanates from the erhu. Leo entreats him to be more open-minded about a culture—the one that surrounds them—with which he is not familiar. “Listen to another music and see what it does to your heart,” Leo tells him. Ernst’s snobbery and prejudice were well to bring out as a Jewish echo of the very racial bigotry against the “other” that sent him into exile. (It should be recalled that the 1882 premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth took place under Wagner’s favorite conductor, the Jewish German Hermann Levi.)

From left, Neal Mayor, Adam B. Shapiro, Juliet Petrus, Stephanie Lynne Mason / Rob Latour/Shutterstock

Sh N G H

I was glad the musical resisted featuring overt religiosity and prayer—which, true, would have provided some musical inspiration for a kitsch number or two, like the prayer song in Come From Away. But these characters, at least the European ones, were quite urbane and secular. What I did miss was any reference to the Jewish community in Shanghai that had been established a century before—mostly Iraqi and Persian Jews who established their commercial enterprises there and elsewhere around the Middle East and Asia. Was there no contact between these two Jewish groups in the city?

As an aside, I once heard a lady talking about being raised in that pre-existing community in Shanghai, which left after the 1949 revolution. Among her childhood friends Chanukah was always their favorite holiday. Why? Because there are Hebrew letters on the four sides of a dreydl used in a Chanukah gambling game. The letters stand for Great Miracle Happened There (referring to the oil that lasted for eight days), or in Hebrew, Nes Gadol Haya Sham, represented by the letters nun, gimel, hey, shin, or N G H Sh. But, she pointed out, if you start with the Sh, you get Sh N G H—Shanghai! Hey, it might be possible for this fun fact to be incorporated into the book: There could be a Chanukah party to which the Chinese friends are invited, and it would be Chinese themselves who make this amusing tri-cultural observation.

Consistent with the norms of an American musical, Shanghai Sonatas has a variety of numbers, including a waltz, ragtime, cabaret, violin and erhu solos, ensembles, choruses. It’s a touching, important story, dramatically and musically well told. It’s important to take note of the final “s” in the show’s title. A sonata is generally understood as a particular compositional form common in Western music. But the word itself, deriving from Latin, means “sounded,” i.e., a musical piece that is played on instruments—as differentiated from “cantata,” which is sung. It is not just the Bach sonata, whose manuscript constituted the backdrop of the stage, that we hear, but also the Chinese music that “sounded” equally in the score, including some lyrics in Chinese. At one point, Lotte (Stephanie Lynne Mason), a Viennese character who’s not a trained singer, offers one of her beloved operetta numbers, and one of the Chinese singers outdoes her with a firm, confident high note.

Shanghai Sonatas was directed by Chongren Fan, who comes from Shanghai. The book is by Alan Goodson, and lyrics are by Joyce Hill Stoner. The three evening performances were guest conducted by Noreen Green, known for her work as artistic director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Music director and assistant conductor Asher Denburg conducted the Saturday matinee. Costume designer is Joanne Fulmer, sound designer is Dave Sanderson, cultural consultant is Zhuoyi Wang, production stage manager is John Freeland Jr., and dramaturg is Jeremy Stoller. The orchestra featured the 6-WIRE ensemble and local Los Angeles musicians sharing the stage with faculty, alumni, and student musicians from the University of Delaware School of Music. The full musical production is now being developed in New York.

Aside from providing the concept and scoring the show, Sean (Xiang) Gao also served as producing artistic director. Named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year in 2021, Gao is a prominent presenter, producer, composer and teacher. He has solo performed violin with more than 100 orchestras worldwide and for many world leaders. As the University of Delaware Trustees Distinguished Professor of Music, he is also the founder and director of the world traveling 6-WIRE ensembles. Gao was born and raised in Beijing and is a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The Shanghai Sonatas Educational Residency (SSER), promoting awareness of the Holocaust, genocide, and racial violence, was created by a team of global educators under Gao’s direction at the University of Delaware with grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Delaware Humanities.

Along with those named above, the performers included Julian Remulla, Sara Laflamme, Caítlín Burke, Neal Mayer, and Anzi Debenedetto.

We hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, please support great working-class and pro-people journalism by donating to People’s World.

We are not neutral. Our mission is to be a voice for truth, democracy, the environment, and socialism. We believe in people before profits. So, we take sides. Yours!

We are part of the pro-democracy media contesting the vast right-wing media propaganda ecosystem brainwashing tens of millions and putting democracy at risk.

Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader supported. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all.

But we need your help. It takes money—a lot of it—to produce and cover unique stories you see in our pages. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.