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DVD: A Look at the Jewish Legacy in Broadway Musicals
May 22, 2013  | By Eric Gould
 

From the 1920s through the 1950s, not all composers and lyricists on Broadway were Jewish, but it certainly seemed as though they were. As Mary Rodgers Guettel, daughter of Richard Rodgers, says, "I'm trying to think if there was anybody not Jewish."
When you look at the long lists of songwriters showcased in the documentary Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, which aired earlier this year on PBS and is now available on DVD, it's hard to argue with the premise. The 90-minute special includes brief bios on George and Ira Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, The King and I), Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun) and Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim (West Side Story, revival, top photo). Most were native New Yorkers, all were Jewish.

And those are just some of the old dogs through the '50s. Jerry Herman would compose music for Hello Dolly and Mame in the '60s, and Sondheim, who was mentored by Hammerstein and Bernstein, would go on to write music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, Assassins and a half-dozen other shows you'd recognize by name.

The lists are long in A Jewish Legacy, and that's perhaps the point. Broadway was perhaps even more dominated by the immigrant group than the popular Catskill Mountain resorts that groomed Jewish comics of the post-war '50s for television fame. It's a remarkable trail to follow.

So, what gives? How did one ethnicity tend to dominate a powerful branch of songwriting and entertainment? Filmmaker Michael Kantor makes a good study using interviews with living writers such as Sondheim and Herman, the children of departed heroes such as Rodgers and Bernstein, and archival footage of old Broadway that brings everything forward to present day.

The documentary marches through the anthropological points, examining the dense, overcrowding of immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side and the legacy of the neighborhood's Yiddish musical theater, demonstrating how Jewish kids used music lessons as a way of assimilating and rising out of the working class, and, perhaps most important, illustrating the importance of the summer camps of upstate New York, where musicals were staged and relationships between future Broadway writers were born.

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy is a pleasing tapestry of the American musical theater, with historical clips of Barbra Steisand and Zero Mostel and current ones featuring Kristin Chenoweth, Nathan Lane and Hugh Jackman. But maybe most palpable and worthwhile is the look at the origins of the music — traditional music well-suited to the full-spectrum passion and emotion of theater dramas.

In one segment, composer Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) sits down at the piano and plunks out the melodies from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, demonstrating their roots in Hebrew prayers along with their connection to African-American blues.Shaiman jokes that while the blues generally starts in the 1/2 note minor (or "down" note) and, in most songs, resolves in the hopeful major, the Hebrew melodies stay in the down note, emphasizing "the Jews and their misery."

A recurring and good-natured refrain in A Jewish Legacy is trying to fit Cole Porter — born to wealthy Midwesterners, and not Jewish — into the picture of the Broadway of the 1930s. Porter, who almost gave up songwriting after three early flops, was said to have told Richard Rodgers he had finally discovered the secret to writing hits. "I'm going to start writing Jewish tunes," Porter said. He went on to write songs such as "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," and A Jewish Legacy points to the minor notes and traditional Yiddish melodies that can be found in the tune.

The DVD release of Broadway Musicals has plenty of worthwhile extras, including a booklet of essays on the subject and a bonus CD with dozens of extra performance clips and interviews. These include an interview with Mel Brooks discussing his early love of Broadway, his success with The Producers' musical mockery of Hitler and Nazi fascism, and how he considers the Broadway musical one of the uniquely original American art forms.

A Jewish Legacy starts and finishes with David Hyde Pierce reprising his comedic performance from the Monty Python-inspired musical, Spamalot, as he sings "You Won't Succeed on Broadway if You Don't Have Any Jews." It's a hilarious, rhyming romp about the need for the Jewish sentiment in lyrics and music.

Python veteran Eric Idle, writer of the lyrics, smiles and adds, "it's not funny unless it's true."


 
 
 
 
 
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