Based on Opelika survivor’s life, “We’ll Meet Again” musical goes on tour

“We’ll Meet Again,” a musical based on the life of a Holocaust survivor in Alabama, is going on tour.

The show, based on the life of Opelika’s Henry Stern, debuted in Savannah, Ga., in August 2022, then moved to Stern’s adopted community, where he was known as “Mr. Opelika.”

Performances will be throughout Alabama and parts of Georgia in the coming month.

Playwright Jim Harris was friends with Stern long before he knew Stern’s story. “When I heard the backstory I was amazed,” Harris told this publication last year. The Barter Theatre in Virginia, the longest-running professional Equity theater in the country, had a program on “Shaping of America,” for original musicals on the development of the United States.

Harris wanted to do a story on World War II, and asked Stern for permission to adapt his story. The musical was supposed to debut in September 2020 at the Barter Theatre, but Covid cancelled the run.

Harris approached the Historic Savannah Theatre for a January 2022 debut, as the Savannah theatre had produced his “Civil War Voices” show in 2013. The continuing pandemic delayed the show to August.

Vocal arrangements and orchestrations were created by Mark Hayes, who is an award-winning concert pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor of international renown, who had worked with Harris on “Civil War Voices.”

Barter Theatre’s Richard Rose was slated to direct the musical before he retired, and after the Virginia performance was canceled, he was so committed to the show that he agreed to direct it in Savannah, and is continuing in that role.

Among those in attendance at the Opelika performance was Auburn Men’s Basketball Coach Bruce Pearl and his wife, Brandy. They knew that the show was about the Holocaust and patriotism, but not much more. They were so moved, they vowed that the Opelika performance would not be the end of the story, and are supporting the current tour.

“We were treated to something we really weren’t expecting,” Pearl said. “We were filled with great pride and happiness about the greatest country in the world that we love so dearly.”

He added, “we want as many middle and high school students as possible to experience this production, so that others can laugh and cry and be moved and inspired by the music, the story, and the dancing — just like Brandy and I were.”

Pearl says the musical tells the story in a “sweet, historically accurate, interesting way,” and shows how the United States “stepped up” in the face of evil.

Pearl said Stern’s story has echoes of his own family’s story. “My grandfather was able to escape to the United States when he was 11 years old, bringing his three younger siblings to this country. But not all of his family made it, and many died in the Holocaust. This musical was for me another reminder of how grateful I am, to live in Alabama and be a basketball coach in Alabama.”

The main part of the story, Pearl said, is that Stern’s family survived and lived on, “as has mine.”

He added that for those who see the show, “this production will make them proud to be an American, because this country rescued this family, and many others.”

The musical features 1930s and 1940s era music, including many of the most popular songs and the swing dances of World War II, with such classics as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and “Juke Box Saturday Night,” while also incorporating several Jewish and Hebrew songs.

“Our hope in creating this show is to capture the essence of what America has meant to the world in our best moments,” said Harris.

Stern’s journey

In 1935, Stern’s great uncle and aunt, Julius and Amelia Hagedorn, traveled from Opelika to visit their relatives in Westheim, Germany. Alarmed at the increasing persecution of Jews and sensing that there was trouble ahead, they tried to convince the Sterns to move to Opelika.

“They didn’t think they needed to leave, they considered themselves Germans,” Harris said. An uncle had died fighting for Germany in World War I, and they thought that legacy would protect them.

Hagedorn “had an amazingly clear view of what was happening,” and Harris says he has an old news clipping of a speech Hagedorn gave to the Rotary Club about the dangers of Nazi Germany. “I don’t think it is fair to say he predicted the Holocaust… but he knew things were going to get terrible.”

The Sterns were finally convinced, but the move was not immediate — with restrictions on what Jews could take with them, Stern’s father spent the next two years converting property and valuables to cash. The family left Germany in June 1937 on the last ship that was permitted to take Jewish refugees out of Germany. At the time, Henry Stern was six years old.

When they arrived in Opelika, it was to a hero’s welcome. The mayor issued a proclamation welcoming them to the city, and beloved kindergarten teacher Louise Tollison had studied German before they arrived, so she could better teach English to the Stern children.

After high school, Stern went to Auburn University, served in the U.S. Navy and returned to Opelika, working in retail and real estate development. He was director of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce for 11 years, was a passionate historian of Opelika and received numerous civic awards.

He also spoke extensively about the Holocaust, especially to student groups. Stern died in 2014.

In 2007, Anna Carlson, an 11th grade student at Opelika High School, wrote a paper about Stern for her history class. Stern had grown up next to her grandmother, and she knew about how Stern had fruitlessly searched for family members after the Holocaust, then finally found a first cousin in Durham, N.C., in 2004.

That paper made its way to Harris, sparking his interest in the story.

Performances will be on Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Opelika Performing Arts Center, with a student matinee at 10 a.m.; on Aug. 30 and 31 at the Gogue Performing Arts Center in Auburn, with matinee performances for area schools. The tour continues on Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. and a Sept. 7 student matinee at the Princess Theatre in Decatur, and on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. at the University of North Alabama’s Norton Auditorium.

There will be a public performance at Mountain Brook High School on Sept. 10 at 3 p.m., and a student performance on Sept. 11. The tour continues on Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Classic Center Theatre in Athens, Ga., with a student matinee earlier in the day. A Sept. 17 performance will be at the Troup Fine Arts Center in LaGrange, Ga. On Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. there  will be a public performance at the Enterprise Performing Arts Center, with a student matinee the morning of Sept. 20. On Sept. 21 there will be a morning student matinee and a 7 p.m. public performance at the Coastal Alabama Community College’s Patterson Auditorium in Brewton.  The show will be in Mobile at the Davidson High School Center for the Arts on Sept. 22 and 23, schedule to be announced, and on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Montgomery Performing Arts Center.

There will be a “From Page to Stage” program with Harris and Rose on Aug. 22 at the Southside Center for the Arts in Opelika at 6 p.m., with a reception at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the community.

More information is available here.