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If you love Broadway musicals

By Norman Greene

Norman Greene

Norman Greene

broadway musicals jewish legacySAN DIEGO — I’ll admit to it.  I’m a “Broadway Baby.” Ever since seeing The Pajama Game, directed by Abe Burrows and Jerome Robbins on the Great White Way, at the age of ten, the Broadway musical theater has been a passion of mine.   However,  aside from the glamour, the music, the dancing, the stories, the theatrical magic of shifting scenery and live in-person performances, I have never really been able to pinpoint the genesis of my fascination.

Now, thanks to a new DVD, Broadway Musicals, a Jewish Legacy, I now know the secret.  It must simply be because I am Jewish.

“Why would that make a difference?” you might justifiably ask.  Well, as the video clearly documents, most of the great Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood film composers and lyricists of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were  Jewish.  They created the songs that made America sing.  Some of their songs, now labeled as “standards” in the American Songbook, were derived from bits of Jewish liturgical music.  Even classics from George Gershwin (“Rhapsody In Blue”) and Irving Berlin have musical phrases taken directly from the synagogue.  Think that’s impossible?  Watch this delightful video.  I think you will love it.

The 84-minute film, first seen on PBS, opens with David Hyde Pierce (currently nominated for a Tony Award) singing “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” from Monty Python’s Spamalot, a spoof on King Arthur’s time.   His theory is that in order to be a success, a Broadway show has to have a few Jews…a difficult proposition during the 800 years of Jewish expulsion from England!  (Did you know that Shakespeare never met a Jew, but was still able to write about one in the Merchant of Venice.)

I remember first hearing the song performed on Broadway and thinking it was a very funny, but silly, premise.

Well, maybe not.

Consider just some of the musicals Jewish artists have given the world:  Show Boat, My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls, Annie Get Your Gun, The King and I, Mame, Oklahoma, Porgy and Bess, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, HairSpray, West Side Story, Call Me Madam, Follies, The Sound of Music, Annie, Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Chicago and the list goes on and on.

In a very entertaining way, this film  provides factual background, film clips and interviews with and about composers from the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Sheldon Harnick, John Kandar, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Shaiman, Maury Yeston, Betty Comden & Adolphe Green, Charles Strouse, Mel Brooks and Stephan Sondheim.  Somehow, they left out Marvin Hamlisch whose Chorus Line has charmed the globe.

There is a good archival sampling of great performances on Broadway by Mathew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Zero Mostel, Mary Martin, Nathan Lane, Barbara Streisand, Idina Menzel, Ethel Merman, Dick Van Dyke and Kristin Chenoweth to name a few.  Also, there is commentary by legendary directors such as Hal Prince and playwright Arthur Laurents and supportive comments by illustrious professors, theater critics and relatives of some of the composers.

While many of the songwriters were unobservant, agnostic, or atheists, they all carried with them something from their family backgrounds, the Jewish sensibility, bits of the culture or ethical outlook.  Oscar Hammerstein II’s call for tolerance, acceptance and understanding in so many of his songs (You’ve Got To Be Taught), shows (South Pacific, Carmen Jones, Flower Drum Song) and other lyrics are clear proof of this.

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this film, but it wouldn’t hurt.  It is, at the least, an eye-opener into the creativity brought to the world by numerous Jewish immigrants who created a new American art form and have provided many of Broadway’s most memorable and entertaining songs, stories and theatrical experiences.

The DVD 2-Disc set includes a bonus disc with an additional three hours of performances and interviews not seen on PBS when it was broadcast in January of this year.  The Broadway Musical DVD became available on May 7th  from Athena, an RLJ Entertainment company.

Greene is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He may be contacted via [email protected]


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