The story of Greece dates to ancient times but in recent times, it hasn't been a positive one. Greeks were humiliated when their bankrupt country had to accept billions in international bailout loans under harsh conditions. And many were left questioning their worth and identity.

Now, one theater director is trying to restore Greek pride through musicals that celebrate times when Greeks suffered wars and poverty, but persevered. Joanna Kakissis sends us this postcard from Athens.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Greek)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's a full house at the 2,000-seat Badminton Theater in eastern Athens. On stage is a musical about the singer Sofia Vembo, whose warm contralto voice comforted Greeks during World War II.


KAKISSIS: The song that is bringing the audience - mostly Greeks in their sixties and seventies - to tears and applause is called "Paida Tis Ellados, Paidia," or "Children of Greece." Sofia Vembo sang it to Greek soldiers fighting Italian and German forces invading the country. Tonight, it's sung by Marinella, a 75-year-old star of Greek music, and a cast in 1940s military dress. In the audience, a young dermatologist named Fiori Kousta is passionately singing along.

FIORI KOUSTA: (Greek spoken)

KAKISSIS: This song gives me hope, she says, because it reminds me that Greeks have been through much worse than what we're going through today. We may have the same enemies, the Germans, but watching this, I think we will fight and emerge victorious again. Greeks need inspiration these days, says theater director Michalis Adam.

MICHALIS ADAM: The entire nation is depressed right now. And there is not someone to inspire them to do something good. Besides all the other problems - besides the poverty, besides the unemployment - there's no hope.

KAKISSIS: So he's trying to inspire hope through nostalgic musicals. For the last two years, he's been staging them at the Badminton Theater, part of a leafy, sprawling site that used to be a venue for the 2004 Olympics. Greeks have been flocking to the shows, which explore the last century.

ADAM: The people today, they understood that situation back then was pretty much the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Greek spoken)


KAKISSIS: Like the problem of corrupt politicians. The musical "Tha Se Paro Na Fygoume," or "I Will Take You Away," celebrated an early 20th-century form of Greek vaudeville that skewered crooked leaders who robbed the country blind. Staged last year, it reminded Greeks of another time they were dependent on foreign loans.

ADAM: After the first war, the people here were very poor. We were getting a lot of loans from abroad, from British mostly.

KAKISSIS: The musical sold more than 90,000 tickets.


KAKISSIS: Nearly as many as another production by Michalis Adam, this one about the life of composer Mikis Theodorakis. Americans will remember Theodorakis for his soundtrack to the 1964 movie "Zorba the Greek." But for Greeks, the musical celebrates Theodorakis' resilience during decades of political repression.

ADAM: He was in exile for so many years. He was in prisons, but he followed his dream and he became a composer. He did what he wanted to do, through very difficult situations. This is, today, a very huge example for people to say, OK. We are facing a very bad situation, but let's do something about it.


SOFIA VEMBO: (Singing in Greek)

KAKISSIS: Adam's latest musical, the one about Sofia Vembo, honors a woman who overcame poverty, sexism and war to become the country's voice of victory. It's a voice that still inspires Vasso Sambarti, a retired civil servant. Vasso came to the musical's premiere with her daughter, the dermatologist we met earlier.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Greek)

KAKISSIS: Vasso grew up listening to songs like this one, about the strength of unity in hard times. Like so many Greeks her age, she's worried about paying bills on a dwindling pension.

VASSO SAMBARTI: (Greek spoken)

KAKISSIS: I can barely go out anymore because I'm so down, she says. But these songs, at least they give us a little cheer.


KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis, in Athens.

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