On Saturday, June 4, 2022, “The Eyes of the World: From D-Day to VE Day” will be presented at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House. After playing a sold-out Carnegie Hall, historian and narrator John Monsky will bring his “American History Unbound” series to Washington, D.C. Monsky uses music, photos, video and letters to capture the history of the last days of World War II. He uses the words of Hemingway; Robert Capa’s photos of magazine of life and photojournalist, Lee Mill; and a “young soldier named Jerry, who landed at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944”. Along the way, we meet Pablo Picasso and Marha Gellhorn, war correspondent and wife of Hemingway.
We must not forget the African Americans who also served, such as the all-black 761st Tank Battalion. Several American flags that were actually landing in Normandy and one carried in combat by the 761st will be presented that night. Hopefully 102-year-old World War II veteran Private Cressencia Garcia will be on hand for the show. Another special guest will be a veteran of the all-female, all-black 6888th Battalion.
Musical director of the show and leading the 58-piece St. Luke’s Orchestra will be Ian Weinberger (“Hamilton”). The program includes music from “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” featuring Glenn Miller, Edith Piaf and Woody Guthrie. Several great Broadway artists will perform, including Adam Jacobs (“Aladdin”), Kristolyn Lloyd (“Dear Evan Hanson)”, Kate Rockwell (“Mean Girls”) and Daniel Yearwood (“Hamilton”).
John Monsky is the creator, writer, and narrator of the “American History Unbound” series. He is a lawyer and historian and teaches at the New York Historical Society and at Carnegie Hall. He appears at the Kennedy Center Opera House, following sold-out lectures on “The Vietnam War: At Home and Abroad” (2018), “We Chose to Go to the Moon” (2019) and ” Eyes of the World” (2021), at Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage and Zankel Hall.
Monsky’s reverence for historical ephemera is at the heart of his lectures, with his meticulous research of flags and other tangible objects guiding his stories exploring landmark events in our history. The flag collection, which Monsky started as a child with a scarf worn by President Theodore Roosevelt, has been featured in the new yorker and Art and antiques magazine.
In 2019, Monsky was honored by the New-York Historical Society, where he developed and organized several of his lectures and is co-vice-president. He recently appeared on CNN and wrote a New York Times op-ed, offering a historical perspective on current events.
Monsky graduated from Yale College with a major in history, where he received the White Prize in History and the Deforest Oratory Award. After attending Harvard Law School and working as a lawyer, he served as an attorney for the US Senate Congressional Committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair. Monsky is a partner and general counsel of Oak Hill Capital, an investment firm.
Can you tell us if you have a personal connection with the Second World War?
My father’s first cousin, Leroy Monsky, was my father’s older brother. They lived near each other in Montgomery, AL. In 1937, Leroy was captain of the undefeated regular season Alabama football team. He then served as a tank commander under General George S. Patton, and the family followed his every move. My great-uncle, Sol Monsky, was a World War I hero and received a Silver Star. He lived in my father’s house after the war, and my father still remembers Sol waking up screaming – with nightmares of the war.
Do you draw parallels in your production with the current situation in Ukraine or elsewhere in the world?
It is said that history often rhymes. The fundamental struggle between freedom and oppression that was at the heart of World War II is at the heart of many conflicts today. The four main characters of “The Eyes of the World”: Vogue model-turned-photojournalist Lee Miller; war photographer, Robert Capa; Ernest Hemingway; and a young American soldier who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day – all found themselves in the middle of this struggle.
Why did you choose the songs for the program, especially those from that era? Did you think they represent that era the most?
Music informs us of the times. It also impacts and shapes times. The anti-war songs of the Vietnam War were not only a reflection of the movement, they helped inspire and drive it. In “The Eyes of the World,” four incredible Broadway stars from “Mean Girls,” “Hamilton,” “Aladdin” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” led by Ian Weinberger (also of “Hamilton”), perform music of World War II era. It’s patriotic and its energy reflects the mobilization of the United States’ war effort, but it’s also filled with heart, tapping into the feelings of loss and separation that so many felt.
Woody Guthrie’s “What Are We Waiting On” reflects America’s efforts to mobilize, while demanding it at the same time. His enormous body of work, much of it written to inspire protest, has influenced generations of artists including Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. However, this song is not against the war, it protests against the delay of the United States to engage in it. Guthrie did not want to see the free world die at Hitler’s hands and was willing to fight and die to stop him.
Glenn Miller’s music reflects the energy of Americans during the war and at home. He was extremely popular. Before the Beatles, Glenn Miller was the Beatles, and his work leaves people with an indelible connection to the times. The images of him as the leader of the Army Air Force Band and his sounds simultaneously make you feel the energy and unity of the young American soldiers who were sent to fight thousands of miles from home.
Edith Piaf’s music, which we hear during a montage of archival photographs, during the fleeting and ultimately premature celebration of the liberation of Paris, is haunting because we know the horrors that will ensue in the Hurtgen forest and the Battle of the Bulge. And we know that many of the young American soldiers we see marching past will not survive the war. Kate Rockwell’s rendition of Marlene Dietrich’s “The Boys in the Backroom” somehow captures the sheer youth and exuberance of the troupes, some of whom are just teenagers. As Ian pointed out, if Spotify existed in 1944, these are the songs it would play over and over again.
What prompted you to embark on this path of creating dramatic, multi-art and historical programs?
“The Eyes of the World”, like the other productions in this “American History Unbound” series, is rooted in a historic American flag, where every story begins. I’ve collected them since I was a boy, which started as a nifty device my mother used to get me to behave while accompanying her on shopping trips and flea market outings. As an adult, I would organize Flag Day celebrations for my friends and neighbors, bringing out a different flag each year and telling its story. Adding images and photos has become an inevitable addition to enhance the experience.
Are there one or two Americans who you think made a difference to our success in World War II?
It is hard to deny the leadership of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not only did he have the ability to reach consensus on the D-Day plan in a room (and environment) full of hot-headed egoists, but he also took responsibility for his decisions. We meet few leaders today who are ready to do so. One of my favorite moments for Eisenhower is when he finally makes the decision to move forward on D-Day, despite a storm threatening to destroy the operation. On June 5, after making the final decision to “leave”, he writes a memo that basically says the landings failed, the armed forces fought bravely, and all blame is his, and his alone. He folds up this note and carries it in his wallet for the next few days. Apparently, this was the first draft of a statement he would issue if the landings failed. Eisenhower was prepared to admit a possible disastrous outcome. This property, regardless of the outcome, is what defines great leaders, and this type of leadership was echoed throughout the United States military throughout the war. Each unit took charge of its problems and solved them. There was no finger pointing or blame. They took this property to the beaches of Omaha and fixed the many issues there, and it was a recurring theme in the months that followed. They made the decisions on the pitch and owned them. From what we hear, this is one of the failures of today’s Russian military in Ukraine.
If you want to honor our military, Memorial Day week is a great time to catch this wonderful tribute to the brave men and women, military and civilian, who helped end World War II.
“The Eyes of the World: From D-Day to VE Day” will be performed on June 5, 2022 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts Opera House, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. Go to this link for tickets .