The phone rings in Maurice Sendak’s rural Connecticut home. “Listen to this,” says his friend Tony Kushner in a perfectly deadpan voice. “J.K. Rowling Admits the Right is Right. She says she is happy because ‘Harry is teaching children to leave Christianity and worship Satan’s sexual member.’” After a pause, the credulous Sendak replies, “Really? She said that?” Kushner laughs and, unable to tease the credulous Sendak any longer, reveals his source: the satirical newspaper, The Onion.
After chatting about things like literature and politics, both men return to their work. Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, is editing an essay for the upcoming coffee-table book “The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present” (Harry N. Abrams, 2003), while Sendak, the famous children’s book artist, is completing a drawing for the final pages of his first children’s book in a decade, “Brundibar,” (Hyperion, 2003), which grew out of an opera he produced with Kushner.
After an extraordinary, virtually unpublicized friendship of almost 10 years, Kushner and Sendak recently crossed a line. They are no longer mere friends, simply basking in their mutual regard for each other. This year they became artistic collaborators. With a new production of their adaptation of the opera “Brundibar” (which premiered last summer), a children’s book version publishing this November — art by Sendak, text by Kushner (Michael di Capua / Hyperion Books for Children) — and the coffee-table book arriving the same month, their years of friendship are about to erupt in a wellspring of creative achievement.
At first glance, the two seem worlds apart. Kushner, 47, is from the South and came of age in Louisiana during the Vietnam War and post-Stonewall era. Sendak, 30 years his senior, is from the North and came of age in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and World War II. But soon after meeting, as Kushner and Sendak revealed in recent interviews with the Forward, an unexpected friendship burgeoned between them.
As it is, perhaps, with all great collaborations, the parties can’t agree on how it all began. According to Sendak, the two first met after a production of Kushner’s “Angels in America,” with “Tony sweeping out after the performance like the Phantom of the Opera.” “Pure fantasy,” Kushner insisted, in a separate interview. “He made that up. He must be thinking of this great black Issey Miyake raincoat I used to wear.” Instead, he distinctly recalls first meeting in the early 1990s after Sendak learned that Kushner was a fan of Herman Melville. Sendak’s appreciation for Melville cannot be overstated; he owns a first edition version of each of his novels in addition to a signed copy of “Moby Dick.” “He sent word that he was interested in meeting me,” Kushner said. “I had been a Sendak fan since my earliest years. I was raised on his books.”
From their first meeting, it was clear they had much in common. Though generations apart, Kushner’s deep emotional fascination with the Jewish immigrant world in which Sendak was born helped them overcome their age gap. Ironic as it may seem, when Sendak recalls a word from his youth whose meaning escapes him, he calls Kushner to find translation for his latest slice of yidishkayt.
“We come from a world of pro-union activists, socialists, Republican-hating New York Jews, and neither of us has betrayed that tradition,” Kushner said. “We read the paper the same way. We get angry at the same villains.”
“I love Tony,” agreed Sendak. “We both have mentshlikhkayt,” a deep sense of humanity. Kushner added: “We both agonize over the fact that we lose a lot of working time to our friends. On the other hand, we are absolutely incapable of turning our backs on the world.”
As Kushner writes in his introduction to the coffee-table book, what attracted him to Melville — the figure that, at least in his view, first brought the two together — was the 19th-century author’s “reckless ardor for the truth and a conviction that truth must be spoke, no matter how shocking, how unpopular or ugly or despairing it may be.” The same could describe the motivations of both Sendak and Kushner. As they see it, while their respective fields are worlds apart, their work speaks a common language, searching for hope in the face of great evil or hardship, and using art as a vehicle for confronting an audience with hard truths. Whether addressing poverty or AIDS or the cruelty of adults, they both seek to help others view the world with unjaded eyes and an open heart.
It was this shared language that spurred them toward collaboration. Michael Di Capua, Sendak’s editor of 40 years, who worked closely with both on the “Brundibar” book, told the Forward that the foundation of the friendship between Kushner and Sendak is that “each thinks the other is an amazing genius. From Tony’s point of view, Maurice is a hero from childhood while Maurice feels in Tony, both intellectually and artistically, he has met his match.”
It was perhaps with this in mind that Sendak first approached Kushner about “Brundibar,” shortly after receiving a CD of the opera. “Brundibar” was created by Hans Krasa in Czechoslovakia in 1938, but was not performed until 1942, when it was finally produced in a Jewish boys’ orphanage in the Prague ghetto. Set in a thinly veiled Nazi-occupied Prague, a Christian boy and girl devise a plan to raise money to buy milk for their infirm mother: They decide to sing in the street, but are frustrated by a bullying, child-hating character named Brundibar, an allegorical stand-in for Adolf Hitler. After recruiting the help of various talking animals and 300 Jewish schoolchildren, Brundibar is thwarted and, for the moment, evil is defeated. This tale of resistance took on added weight after all involved in its production were transported to Terezin, a concentration camp, where imprisonedchildren performed it dozens of times.
When Kushner first heard the music of “Brundibar,” he was stunned. “It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of musical theater ever written for children,” he said. A few weeks later, when Kushner turned in the new English libretto, Sendak decided it would not only be an opera, but a children’s book as well. Thus began not just one, but two collaborations.
And then two became three, when the publisher working on the coffee-table book about Sendak’s work asked Kushner to write the introduction, which quickly grew into a book-length essay.
Though Sendak was tentative about collaborating with a friend, both men soon came to appreciate the experience. “I can’t have a friendship without collaboration,” Sendak explained. “As artists, we’re just too busy.” Moreover, the friendship helped shaped the collaboration. “Tony kept me toned down,” Sendak said, in reference to the bitterness and anger that arose while tackling such issues as child poverty and mass extermination. “He softened the raw bones that were poking out, so to speak.”
In the end, the friendship did more than survive. “We came through the collaboration stronger,” said Sendak, “which is astonishing.” Di Capua described their relationship as appearing “ten times stronger now because of their having been down in the pits together, hammering out all this work. Without any question their collaboration has intensified what was already a very intense relationship to begin with.”
“It’s my crowning achievement,” Sendak said of the opera and book, “my last great collaboration.” Kushner had a similar response. Although friends for so many years, Kushner still can’t get over the fact that he has created a book with his childhood hero. “‘I am absolutely certain this is going to be one of the things in my life that I am proudest of.”
Still, one is curious how Sendak finds hope in the face of war, the Holocaust, and the realization that history’s lessons often go unlearned. Kushner suggests an answer in his introductory essay, writing that in his work “Sendak resolves the dilemma between facing despair and locating hope by discovering the only place in which hope can be located- in community, in society, with and through other people.” When asked where he finds it in his own life, Sendak said, “I find hope in knowing as an older man I can still be engaged with the world and that I can have friendships with people like Tony.”
When the title character in “Brundibar” first appears in the book, singing his awful hurdy-gurdy songs about killing children, two Jewish boys stand behind him, defiant, arms wrapped around the other, dancing with joy, even though their yellow stars mark them for future destruction. Standing behind Hitler’s back, they dance. Sendak called it the book’s “great irony.” It is also a portrait of what has been achieved by two artists forging their friendship into a unified creative voice, grounding themselves to fight the good fights. As Kushner’s text for Brundibar reads, “Our friends make us strong.”
Barry Joseph is human rights and Internet specialist at GlobalKids.org, a New York-based educational organization.