June 25, 2013

Michael Kantor’s documentary, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, examines the extent to which the Broadway musical has been essentially a Jewish creation. It is a loving tribute to a heritage for which all the world should be grateful given the dozens of well known and indeed hundreds of lesser known Jewish composers and lyricists who made magic in New York theaters throughout the twentieth century.

Kantor’s 84 minute film, which was a PBS presentation on the Great Performances series last January, doesn’t so much strike out new ground as it fondly summarizes and illustrates a story often told. I mean, it’s no secret that Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and so many others were Jewish. In fact, as the film shows Rodgers’ daughter saying, its hard to think of very many Broadway composers or lyricists who weren’t Jewish. (She was, of course, herself a Broadway musical composer – she composed Once Upon A Mattress.)

The extent to which Jewish creators dominated both the musical theater, and for that matter, the “tin pan alley” age of American pop music, is well surveyed, including the observation that one Russian Jewish immigrant, Israel Isidore Beilin, who changed his name to Irving Berlin, wrote the best selling Easter song in history (“Easter Parade”), the best selling Christmas song ever written (“White Christmas”) and “God Bless America” which almost supersedes “The Star Spangled Banner” as the American anthem.

Among the staples of the Broadway musical stage which have words or music by Jewish composers or lyricists (or both) include Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, Carousel, My Fair Lady, The Producers, Hello, Dolly!, South Pacific, Annie, The King and I, Cabaret, The Sound of Music, Porgy and Bess, Hairspray, Of Thee I Sing, Wicked and Pippin.

The exception that everyone thinks of first is Cole Porter. But the film includes the tale that he once told Richard Rodgers that he’d discovered the secret to writing a Broadway hit: “write Jewish songs.” Maury Yeston illustrates just what that meant on the piano.

When the documentary first appeared on PBS there was some flap over the inclusion of Oscar Hammerstein II in some of the shots and sequences, but the documentary does clearly state that he was “raised Episcopalian” while it points out that he was the grandson of German-Jewish impresario, the first Oscar Hammerstein, who all but created the theater district we now know that surrounds Times Square.

The film starts with a view of the Jewish theater world of the lower east side of New York at the turn of the twentieth century, including an explanation of the impact of the sound of yiddishkite (meaning “everything jewish”) theater by none other than Michael Tilson Thomas, the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. He’s the grandson of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky who were the biggest stars of Yiddish theater.

Mini biographies of Gershwin, Berlin, and others are crafted from interviews with historians and composers and clips from historical films and Hollywood versions of  stage musicals. There are some clips from television coverage of Broadway musicals, probably most from performances on Tony Award shows. However,  a number of clips from Hollywood film versions of Broadway musicals give a bit of an inflated view of the production value to be found on live stages. True, Broadway found room for the Phantom's chandelier, Miss Saigon's helicopter and Spider-Man's incredibly cheap looking monsters, but the helicopter shot of Barbra Streisand belting out Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the movie version of Funny Girl doesn’t have much of a Broadway feel.

Among the composers who tell stories of Jewish influence on the art form and occasionally illustrate them from the piano are David Shire, Stephen Schwartz, Andrew Lippa, John Kander, Marc Shaiman and Maury Yeston. Theater historians include Stuart J. Hecht, Laurence Maslon and Philip Furia add some scholarly perspective.

Kantor brings a wealth of background to the process, having won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series for the six hour exploration of the history of the Broadway musical stage, Broadway: The American Musical which ran on PBS in 2004 and which I reviewed in the February 15, 2011 column on Theater Shelf. He also produced The Thomashefsky’s: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater written by Michael Tilson Thomas.

The DVD comes with a second disc of bonus material, principally extended segments of the interviews used in the documentary. These include interviews with the likes of Theodore Bikel, Mel Brooks and Eric Idle, as well as with Iriving Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, Yip Harburg’s son Ernest and Dorothy Field’s son David Lahm, who, of course since his mom came from such a theater-involved family, was also the nephew of Joseph and Herbert Fields and the grandson of Lew Fields of Weber and Fields fame.

In both the documentary and the bonus material, the most interesting and thought provoking comments on the already much-commented-upon phenomenon come from Josh Kun, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. If you find his comments in the documentary of interest, don’t fail to put disc two into your player and check out his comments “On The Masquerade,” “On Blacks and Jews” and “On Anti-Semitism.”

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy
Running time: 84 minutes
Bonus disc of 3 hours
14 page booklet
Athena DVD AMP-8984

Broadway Musicals:

A Jewish Legacy