When Rebecca Keren and Daniella Rabbani, both playwrights and actors, sat down to collaborate on the creation of a new musical, they turned to an unlikely source for inspiration — the Torah and commentaries on the sacred text. Featuring a score by the prolific award-winning writer, composer, musician, and theater director Elizabeth Swados, Rachel and Leah: A New Musical will make its New Jersey premiere on Saturday night, Nov. 12, at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal.
Set in the ancient Middle East, the 80-minute production tells the tale of twin sisters Rachel (played by Rabbani, who cowrote the book) and Leah (played by Keren, who cowrote the book and wrote the lyrics) and their desperate battle for the love of Jacob.
“Rebecca and I spent a whole summer reading through the Torah and the commentaries, and debating the characters and stories,” said Rabbani, 27, in an interview with NJJN. “The idea that there may be many truths and many ways to view characters like Rachel and Leah is the most magical part of studying Torah.”
The poetic license they took was firmly entrenched in the commentaries. “The Torah does not say explicitly whether Rachel and Leah were twins or not, but Genesis Rabbah midrash suggested they could have been,” said Keren, 26. “We chose to make them twins, which mirrors the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau over who comes first. The commentaries also suggest that twin Esau was destined for older twin Leah, and younger twin Jacob was destined for younger twin Rachel.”
Graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Keren and Rabbani are members of the National Yiddish Theater and have performed in New York, in numerous Off-Broadway productions, and at select concerts at Lincoln Center, Baruch Performing Arts Center, and Town Hall. Keren, Rabbani, and Swados all live in New York City.
Collaborating on Rachel and Leah helped reconnect Rabbani and Keren to their roots. Rabbani was raised in an Orthodox home in Great Neck, Long Island, and attended yeshiva throughout her youth. Keren, who said she was “raised observant in a Conservative home,” grew up in Potomac, Md., where she attended Jewish day schools. In 2004, Keren founded the Womb, a theater group for women at NYU Tisch whose schedule never conflicts with Jewish holidays and Shabbat. When she is not on stage, she tutors b’nei mitzva students.
One of the most compelling human dramas in the Book of Genesis, the story of Rachel and Leah translates into an evocative and uplifting musical experience, Rabbani said, adding that she and Keren “knew a lot about the characters and stories from our own Hebrew education.”
“I really connect with the storytelling aspect of being Jewish,” said Rabbani. The fact that Bible stories like those of “Rachel and Leah and the story of Joseph have lasted this long says a lot about our culture. Storytelling and music are key to preserving our heritage and keeping our story alive and bringing our community together by engaging our imagination, our hearts and souls.”
The show, said its producer, Moishe Rosenfeld (of Broadway’s Those Were the Days and The Rothschilds), “takes you on an emotional, uplifting, at times hilarious journey through the love triangle between the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and their husband Jacob.”
Tony-nominated, Obie-winning composer Swados, who is perhaps best known for her Broadway and international hit Runaways, has written about 15 works in Jewish modes over her 30-year career. “The music of Rachel and Leah is influenced by ancient biblical music, as well as contemporary chords,” she told NJJN. “What I tried to do was reflect a kind of Jewish modality and youthfulness, to highlight the drama of the story. When the drama intensifies, I up the harmonies and rhythms.”
Swados said her music was inspired by an emotional connection to Keren and Rabbani. “I am so moved by these two young women and how passionate they are about this work,” she said.
Both playwrights used their own relationships with their sisters as a springboard. “My older sister’s name is Rachel Leah. I always looked up to her and was obsessed with the biblical story,” Keren said.
“One of the reasons this story will always have relevance,” Rabbani said, “is because sibling rivalry is universal, whether in ancient Mesopotamia or Union Square in Manhattan.”
The production is directed by Leah Bonvissuto (Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab); the musical director is Kris Kukul (Williamstown Theater Festival, Atlantic Theater Company, Joe’s Pub).