Musical allows refugees to shine on Berlin stage
“I never knew I could feel this way,” sings 18-year-old Maher Shamashan from Syria. The audience whoops and whistles at the premiere of a musical that has turned refugees into star performers on the Berlin stage.
At the end of the performance there is a standing ovation for American composer Todd Fletcher and the multicultural cast of “Hoch Hinaus” (“Flying High”).
The night before, Fletcher, 48, a Harvard graduate with 35 musicals to his credit, was sleepless with worry about his latest high-risk venture: putting refugees with little knowledge of Western music or the German language on stage in Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig.
Yet the gamble has paid off, with a successful touring show that tells anew the age-old story of the battle between good and evil.
“I’m in the bad army, dressed in black,” says Rahman Yaqoubi, 17, an Afghan who grew up in exile in Iran. “I like Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson – how he dances. There was no chance for me to perform in Iran. It is good fun to work with Herr Todd. Herr Todd is a diamond.”
Fletcher was raised in Connecticut, steeped in the passion, spectacle and music of the southern Baptist churches. He has lived in Germany since 2006, working on various youth projects. “Hoch Hinaus” is the fruit of cooperation between his own company, PluralArts International, and the German Catholic charity Malteser Hilfsdienst.
“I have a friend who was running a shelter,” says Fletcher. “I was curious about the refugees but had never met any. I saw them lying on their beds, whiling away their time with their phones – hundreds of able-bodied, intelligent men with nothing to do. I thought it was such a waste of talent.”
So he had the idea of writing a musical for them.
“Hoch Hinaus” is roughly based on the experiences of the refugees, exploring themes such as friendship, freedom and betrayal. A fantasy, with echoes of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland”, it tells how a group of innocent villagers, dressed in white, are captured by the forces of the Little Witch, dressed in black.
The villagers are held hostage in the mountains and forced to take part in the witch’s tea party until the hero, Maher, with help from Princess Deyse, comes to the rescue and the warring sides are reconciled.
Many asylum seekers who arrived in Europe in 2015 were young men, so most of the female parts in the musical are taken by Germans, with refugees filling the male roles. However, refugee women are also involved. Others are helping make the costumes using skills honed back in their home countries.
Learning the lyrics has been a good way for the refugees to improve their German, an essential part of their integration – though only the “goodies” sing in German, while the villains speak English.
Rehearsals have been taking place for months. As well as coaching the refugees he recruited in Berlin, Fletcher has been travelling every Monday to rehearse with youngsters in Hamburg.
As rehearsals entered in their final week at Berlin’s ufaFabrik cultural centre, the pressure was on. “It seems all I do is scream, scream, scream at them,” says Fletcher. Nevertheless, the performers were loving it. “I feel happiness when I am singing,” says Kim Saad, 30, a Palestinian who lived in Libya before coming to Europe. Older than the others, he plays an elderly man. “I have been under a lot of stress because I lost my wife and daughter in the war in Libya. The musical has helped me.”
Nastassja Selow, 14, plays the witch. “This has been so much fun,” she says. “I’ve never played this kind of role and I’ve not really met refugees before. We have made friends. I don’t want it to end because then I won’t see them every week.”
Fletcher calls the cast to order. “Right everyone,” he says. “We have seven minutes to learn something new but it’s super easy.
‘Lift your voices and sing!
We no longer have to wait now,
We are stronger. Stand up straight now!
We have turned the golden key,
We’re finally free…’”
Within minutes, the cast had picked up the new steps to with the song.
With only hours to go until the premiere, Maher was nervous. “I don’t have a perfect voice but Todd said we can all sing, so I gave it a go and it’s been great,” says the hero of the piece.
"I know one day we will go home and build our country again."
“In the story, I’m the loser. I’m afraid of everything – except that I know languages and can read maps, so I am able to save the others. But I don’t see myself as the star. I am not alone on the stage.”
Perhaps the real hero is Reza Yaqoubi, 17. At short notice, he stepped in to replace a cast member who fell ill and managed to learn the key role of Reza the Traitor in just a week.
“Music is a language for everyone,” he says modestly. “Music is a feeling we can all understand.”
It was time for the curtain up.
Hoch Hinaus has some beautiful songs – “The Travel Prayer”, which combines Islamic, Christian and Jewish prayers for safe travels; “Always and Everywhere”, in which the white warrior Khaled promises to be there always for his friend; and “I Never Knew”, the love duet between Princess Deyse and Maher.
- See also: Refugee orchestra wins standing ovation
Fletcher has allowed the refugees’ talent to blossom. “My motto,” he says, “is Benjamin Disraeli’s saying: ‘The greatest good you can do for another is not to share your riches but reveal to him his own.'”
The refugees seem stunned by the thunderous applause that greets the closing chorus, “Finally Free”.
However, “Finally Free” is not quite the end. The musical finishes with Maher going back up the mountain to liberate others who remain in bondage.
Maher, who arrived in Germany by train in 2015, sees meaning in every note of the musical. “I lost friends in Syria,” he says. “When I came to Munich station, I would have sung ‘Finally Free’ if I had I known it then. Now I am in Germany, studying. But like every Syrian, I know one day we will go home and build our country again, and make a completely different future.”