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‘Must be Jews’

The tribe’s influence on Broadway musicals

Michael Kantor, producer/director/writer of the PBS documentary Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, believes “we’re all better off for there being Jews on Broadway.”
Michael Kantor, producer/director/writer of the PBS documentary Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, believes “we’re all better off for there being Jews on Broadway.”

In the Broadway musical Spamalot, the Monty Python send-up of the King Arthur legend, a character sings these lines in one of the more popular numbers in the show:

To get along on Broadway,
To sing a song on Broadway,
To hit the top on Broadway
     and not lose,

I tell you, Arthur king,
There is one essential thing:
There simply must be, simply must
     be Jews.

With that in mind, the PBS series Great Performances kicks off 2013 with Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy. The 90-minute documentary is scheduled to air on Tuesday, Jan. 1, at 9:30 p.m. on WNET.

The roster of notable composers and lyricists is extensive, an “all-star” team comprising the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne — and others.

But is it still true? Does a musical need input from a member of the tribe to be a success? Perhaps not, but according to Michael Kantor, who served as producer/director/writer on the film, “I think we’re all better off for there being Jews on Broadway.”

In a telephone interview, Kantor — who won an Emmy in 2005 for the six-part PBS series Broadway: The American Musical — said, “The Jewish songwriters have exercised their best muscles to create a body of work that is incomparable…. The great legacy is not only the great songs that the Gershwins and Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim have written, but also the fact that they helped to develop a unique American art form that everybody can enjoy.”

Many of the songs from the heyday of the Broadway musical “are either rooted in a Jewish liturgical melody, or there’s something about the ethos of the story that pertains to Jewish morals,” said Kantor. “It’s been a natural fit and the results speak for themselves in terms of how much Americans — be they Jewish or not — have enjoyed this art form.” A prime example is “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which seeks to debunk some of “the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible.”

While Sondheim and others of his generation may not have the same observant connection to Judaism, there’s no doubt that Yiddishkeit permeates their work. Sondheim, noted Kantor, “will pepper his speech with Yiddish terms.”

“I don’t know whether or not the theater and its own rituals of the lights dimming…is a substitute for people’s religious needs. I think there’s a still-strong connection, even if a lot of the talent themselves are not particularly observant in a religious sense.”

Maury Yeston, who wrote the music for the shows Nine and Titanic and whose grandfather was a cantor, grew up hearing Jewish melodies. Kantor said that when Yeston “writes a song for the musical Nine called ‘Be Italian,’ he says, ‘That’s a Jewish song.’” In the documentary, Yeston demonstrates how Cole Porter’s hit “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” bears a remarkable resemblance to a Yiddish tune his father used to sing.

Songwriters’ journey

Although Kantor is an expert on the musical stage, he confessed to having been surprised when he learned about the connection between Berlin’s “God Bless America” and Hebrew prayers. “That’s pretty wild,” Kantor said. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t changed, the same way a Jackson Pollock painting differs from a preschooler’s splash-and-drip painting. There’s no question that Irving Berlin took his own genius and created something new, but that connection, as demonstrated in the film, is so clear, that it’s shocking to me.”

Berlin was born Israel Baline in Russia in 1888. Kantor said one of the composer’s earliest memories was seeing his village destroyed in a pogrom. “And he lived long enough to see a pogrom on stage in Fiddler on the Roof. So the act of violence that drove him from his homeland to America becomes high art.

“It’s that kind of acculturation, assimilation, journey for these songwriters that they come in…fresh off the boat, first-generation immigrants — and Leonard Bernstein goes to Harvard!”

West Side Story — Bernstein was the composer, Sondheim the lyricist — was originally called “East Side Story” and dealt with the conflict between Jews and gentiles during the Easter/Passover holiday, but it was changed to Puerto Ricans and Anglos because the creators felt the original concept was too much of a rehash of Abie’s Irish Rose.

Composers who came to America as adults — with their grown-ups’ sensibilities and outlooks — included Weill, who fled from Germany as the Nazis were coming into power. Kantor said such people “embraced America in a way that those of us who grew up in the suburbs ought to learn from.”

It may be that this perspective of the outsider made Jews particularly sensitive, if only subconsciously, and good choices to write for such hit shows as Showboat, South Pacific, and West Side Story — all with racial or ethnic conflict at their cores — to name a few.

Kantor was nominated for an Emmy for Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, another mini-series on PBS, and served as producer for the documentary The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, which also aired on PBS earlier this year. Having had all that experience with Broadway, Kantor said, he was reluctant to revisit the general topic, but came to realize that although there have been numerous books about the role of Jewish composers and lyricists, no one had taken on the subject for a film. It’s quite different hearing the examples rather than just reading about them.

“My goal is to try and reach out to the people who were part of it, who created the shows or who were in some ways related to those people, or maybe they’ve spent their whole lives studying it, to get the best perspectives and put them together in an interesting way.”

For more information on Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, visit tinyurl.com/c8dhuro.

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