By Ann Cipperly
For The Observer
A heart-warming story inspired by the life of Opelikan Henry Stern and his family is being portrayed in a new musical production, “We’ll Meet Again,” by playwright Jim Harris, on Aug. 30 at the Opelika Center for the Performing Arts.
Presented by the Arts Association of East Alabama, the play features World War II-era songs arranged by renowned composer Mark Hayes. Prior to the performance, a reception will be held at the Museum of East Alabama.
The musical is the second production by Harris showcasing a family in Opelika. Harris, an attorney in Lincoln, Nebraska, spent summers and holidays in Opelika at his family’s farm in Cusseta. His parents, the late Eleanor and John T. Harris, were founders of the Museum of East Alabama.
Harris developed a love of musicals when he was growing up. His mother, who was musically talented, took him to see all the great musicals. He has also performed in productions over the years, including playing one of the dads in “Mamma Mia!”.
Harris remembers visiting his parents several years ago when his father introduced him to Henry Stern at the Elks Club at lunch after church. When his father told him about Henry coming to Opelika with his family to escape Nazi Germany, he was surprised and interested in the story.
It was on a fateful day in June 1937, as Adolf Hitler was gaining power in Germany, that 6-year-old Heinz Stern and his family, possessing ten dollars and few material goods, boarded the SS Washington in Hamburg. They narrowly escaped the horror of the Holocaust, as it was the last ship providing passage to Jews. Heinz and his family traveled to a relative’s home in Opelika. Heinz became Henry Stern, a beloved community leader with his wife Roslyn.
After the success of Harris’ first play “Civil War Voices” about his great-great-uncle, he was looking for a uniquely American story for his second production. He remembered his father telling him about Henry Stern and returned to Opelika to interview him. Harris was intrigued with his amazing story and felt it had to be told.
Five years ago, Harris hired an interpreter and traveled to Henry’s hometown in Westheim, Germany. With the help of city officials, he found a man who knew Henry and his family. The man, who had been a child himself at the time, remembered that Henry was good at stickball and that his father would stand in the doorway of his shop.
“It was remarkable that I found this man,” Harris said. “The man provided information on what the town was like during that era.”
Harris returned to Nebraska to work on the play and selected songs that were popular during World War II. He contacted Hayes, who arranged music for his first play, to assemble songs for the new play, “We’ll Meet Again.”
In 2020, two readings of the play were presented at the Tony Award-winning Barter Theatre, the state theater of Virginia. As the world premiere production was ready to be presented in September 2020 in 41 stage shows with an orchestra, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before being presented in Opelika, the musical will hold its world premiere in Savannah, Georgia, this month.
“The play was inspired by Henry’s true story,” Harris said. “But there is some creative license to move the story along. There are several Opelika places in the show, including the train depot and POW camp. There are parts that are sorrowful, and there are parts that are joyful. The play is presented in flashbacks.
“We have a great cast. The gentleman that plays the lead reminds you of Henry. A lady playing a key role is coming in from Las Vegas, and we have a lot of talented performers and professional dancers in the show.
“When the two readings were held, we had very good feedback from young people that was exciting,” Harris added. “I think it is going to be entertaining, which is important to me. I don’t like shows that don’t engage you. One of the things I love about the Stern story is it was great that they got out of Germany, and it was great for Opelika, too. Opelika benefitted from them being here.
“We are excited to be able to bring ‘We’ll Meet Again’ to Opelika,” Harris said. “Theater is pretty magical, and I enjoy doing it. It has been rewarding to me that his two children have been supportive of the show.”
Henry and Roslyn’s two children, Ginger and J., who are carrying on their parents’ legacy, are excited about the play.
“This has been in the works since Dad was alive,” Ginger said. “I’m excited to see his story on stage.”
“We’ll Meet Again” will be presented Aug. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Opelika Center for the Performing Arts.
“This is exciting,” J. said. “I think Dad would really love this.”
For tickets and further information, contact the Arts Association of East Alabama at 334-749-8105 or 334-552-1577. The office is located at 1103 Glenn St., Opelika. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.