If you explore their website, you might conclude that this is not a Jewish musical group. In keeping with the description of the ensemble as “Manhattan Transfer meets Second City,” what you will find is a fully-loaded arsenal of spot-on political satires, cleverly funny parodies of familiar songs, smooth ballads from the American Songbook, beloved oldies — including folk/pop classics and some really cool doo-wop and a cappella and sing-along numbers, sung in close harmony and with eclectic arrangements. There’s even a little Dylan.
But make no mistake: The Loose Canons (not a typo; it’s canon, as in “a contrapuntal musical composition in two or more voice parts”) has unassailable Jewish bonafides.
The group will perform, along with Metropolitan Klezmer, at Congregation Agudath Israel (CAI) in Caldwell on Saturday evening, Nov. 16.
The first Jewish element is the group’s origin story, which, said one of the veteran members, “came straight out of synagogue life.”
It began in Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange in the early 2000s. That synagogue had for some years put on musical shows with a core group, but that had come to an end. Then one year, two of the players suffered personal losses, and Charles Wantman of South Orange — a Loose Canon and Oheb Shalom member — suggested a way to honor one of those, a music lover, who had died: by staging a musical tribute. Thus was born “Fractured Folk Songs” — a one-night-only performance of parodies created and performed with some of the original players and some friends from outside Oheb Shalom. They included Randi and Murray Spiegel of Roseland, members of Agudath Israel and well-known in the community for their Israeli folk-dancing expertise and popularity as performers and teachers.
(It’s the Spiegels who have made the Nov. 16 event a free concert, in recognition of the 10th music program they are presenting at CAI.)
The audience response, said Wantman, prompted them to “play it again” a few months later at CAI.
As it happened, said Ellen Goldstein of Millington — a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge and of Oheb Shalom, where she was part of the original players — some of those players acknowledged “the emptiness they felt” every year since their shows had ended. It was, she said, Wantman and Rich Mendelsohn who first proposed “taking this show on the road” and went on to coordinate The Loose Canons.
The ensemble was solidified, said Wantman, by recruiting musicians and singers from throughout the area. “We all knew each other from local synagogues and various Jewish choral groups in the area,” he said. Almost all the current members have been involved since the beginning. Most of the parodies are written by Spiegel and Ben Alter.
Since they began entertaining audiences throughout New Jersey, Jewish concepts have been among the group’s motivating factors. They’ve always regarded its activities, said Wantman, as a form of tikun olam, performing “not to make money, but as a service to the community.” Their concerts are chiefly fund-raisers for Jewish institutions and other nonprofit organizations. The group’s mission, Spiegel said, is to support community groups by providing “high-quality musical entertainment” accompanied by the most amount of fun.
Of the dozen Loose Canons, eight are men, four are women — all are Jewish and members of congregations throughout Greater MetroWest. And all, said Spiegel, are proud they have been together for 16 years (the one or two who were not there at the beginning are still veterans of many years). Wantman said they stay together because “we are not content just to have a good time; we’re committed to getting better and better, keeping our standards high — and our humor low.”
Goldstein noted another factor contributing to their longevity: “We are all equal partners in running the group,” she said. “As with any group of Jews, there’s a lot of voting, conversation, e-mails, discussions to decide the repertoire,” but, at the end of the day, “we all really love each other. It’s so much fun, to be with the same people in this heimishe group, for 16 years.”
Enough Jewish bonafides? Well, at holiday times, you may find them singing a few traditional numbers, and there’s a parody or two with particular appeal to Jewish audiences — “Shabbos Goy,” sung to the tune of “Danny Boy,” for example — but Murray Spiegel summed it up by saying that The Loose Canons fulfill the truism: “Jews love being entertained and love entertaining.”
If you go
Who: The Loose Canons and Metropolitan Klezmer
When: Saturday, Nov. 16, 8 p.m.
Where: Congregation Agudath Israel, Caldwell
Cost: Free with registration before Nov. 15, $20 at the door
Contact: 973-226-3600 or visit tinyurl.com/CAI-double-bill
Metropolitan Klezmer performs a wide range of Yiddish musical genres, including numbers in the wedding dance, folk, swing, and tango styles and material from vintage Yiddish films.