OK, they may not be “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But several new musicals debuting at the New York Musical Theater Festival are taking on Jewish themes and characters in a big way.
Which is not surprising considering that Broadway musical theater is basically a Jewish invention: without the combined talents of Jewish creators, the musical might never have come to occupy such a central place in American popular culture.
The new shows run the gamut from David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff’s jubilant “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” a true story about an unusual middle-aged couple in Canada, to Steve Rosen and David Rossmer’s sentimental “V-Day,” an urban adventure by a single Jewish man who has a Valentine’s Day to remember, to Andy Seiler, Jim Beckerman and Fred Wemyss’ “The Most Ridiculous Thing You Ever Hoid,” a zany tribute to the Marx Brothers. All three share élan, exuberance and no-holds-barred humor.
Isaac Robert Hurwitz directs the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF), which began in 2003 when a group of writers, directors and producers came together to find a way to overcome the soaring costs of putting on a musical in New York, costs that start at $200,000 for a workshop production. Hurwitz’s organization offered to pay for renting the theaters and doing the overall marketing if the productions paid for their own rehearsal costs, sets, costumes, actors and musicians. The concept quickly took off, and in the last seven years, five NYMF shows have transferred Off-Broadway including “Altar Boyz,” “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” and “Shout.” This year, 30 shows were chosen for production out of the hundreds of submissions to the festival.
David Hein of “Lesbian Jewish” grew up with his divorced mother in the prairies of the Midwest. They moved to Ottawa when he was 13, and she came out to him as a lesbian. When she fell in love and married a Wiccan woman she had met while singing in a choir, Hein had an irresistible theme for a multicultural musical.
Working with a friend, actress Sankoff, Hein came up with a mix of zany production numbers and intimate ballads in country, folk and rock styles. Starring Broadway veterans Liz Larsen and Ann Harada as the two women, and directed by Stafford Arima from “Altar Boyz,” the musical has what Hein called a “very folk, acoustic feel” as it shows his mother reclaiming her faith in Judaism at the same time as she finds love with a believer in modern-day paganism and witchcraft. After playing at the Toronto Fringe, the show attracted the notice of Canadian mega-producer David Mirvish, who bankrolled a commercial run in Toronto.
Hein said that his mother’s Jewish traditions have “melded” with her partner’s Wiccan traditions, especially when it comes to holidays linked to the seasons. He noted that as well as honoring the religious faiths of the two women, the musical celebrates the legalization of gay marriage in Canada, which happened in 2005. “A 70-year-old Jewish grandmother came up to me in Toronto and said that her granddaughter was getting married to another woman,” Hein recalled. “She said that she was wasn’t OK with it until she saw the show.”
A very different take on love is at the heart of Rosen and Rossmer’s “V-Day,” which highlights the ethical dilemma of a single New Yorker named Josh Cohen who, after having all of his belongings stolen except for a Neil Diamond CD, receives a temptingly large Valentine’s Day check in the mail that may or may not be legitimate. Both Rosen and Rossmer play the main character, with four other actor-musicians who play the other characters, including a girl whom Josh meets in a drug store.
Rosen, who is from Rochester, and Rossmer, who hails from the New York area, met at a performing arts summer camp in upstate New York. Both have appeared extensively on Broadway. Their most successful collaboration, an ongoing New York “happening” called “Don’t Quit Your Night Job” raises money for charity by presenting actors and singers late at night after they have finished performing in their regular shows.
The songs in “V-Day” are all in the style of Neil Diamond, whose music becomes a kind of auditory prism through which the main character experiences the world, blending into what Rosen called “the music in his head, the music in his heart, and the music of the city.” When he tells people about the show, Rosen said, he is surprised how many people admit to being “closet Neil fans.” As Rossmer put it, Diamond’s “deceptively simple tunes and sentiments work both on a campy, kitsch level and also in terms of their colorful, manly sensitivity.”
An even more nostalgic take on Jewish culture is on view in Beckerman and Seiler’s “The Most Ridiculous Thing You Ever Hoid,” a musical based on the scripts from an obscure Marx Brothers radio show called “Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel” that ran on NBC in 1932. In the original show, written by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman, Groucho played an attorney named Waldorf T. Flywheel, with Chico playing his assistant. In 1988, an employee at the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress miraculously found the scripts in storage; a few years later, recordings of the show were also located.
Beckerman and Seiler, who were friends at Princeton High School in Princeton, N.J., have collaborated on songwriting for 35 years, with Beckerman writing the music and Seiler the words. Their new musical, which was first performed last summer by the Bergen County Players, is set in a radio studio, with Groucho (Erik Liberman) and Chico (Jared Miller) doing the show and Harpo (Jonathan Randell Silver) supplying the sound effects. In time-honored Marx Brothers fashion, anarchy reigns supreme. “It’s as if a hurricane, tornado and five-alarm fire all hit at the same time,” Beckerman said. “Nothing will grow there for another hundred years.”
While Beckerman admitted that he is unsure if Groucho ever uttered the title phrase, it sounds exactly like something the leering, verbally pugnacious comedian would have said. “Groucho’s monologues lead nowhere,” Beckerman said. “Even his digressions have digressions.” Unlike Monty Python, whose routines started out in a surreal and lunatic manner, he noted, “the Marx Brothers began with a very conventional structure and then showed what happened when it all fell apart.”
Andrea Most, who teaches at the University of Toronto, is the author of “Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical” (Harvard, 2004). During its heyday in New York in the 1950s and ‘60s, Most told The Jewish Week, the musical carried many implicit Jewish themes. Among these, she said, were the “Judaic notions” of self-transformation and the pursuit of stardom, balanced with the need to suppress one’s individual ambitions in favor of the needs of the community.
In its unique marriage of art and commerce, Most said, the musical remains a way to “explore ideas about building a self and living in a community in a way that is specific to Jewish values and Jewish history.”
Will one of the Jewish musicals at NYMF end up succeeding like “Altar Boyz,” which became one of the longest-running Off-Broadway musicals of all time? The creators can only hope. Meanwhile, NYMF plays an ever-growing role in the theater community, commissioning a new dance musical each year, exchanging one show each summer with a major international theater festival in South Korea, receiving millions of dollars in donated equipment from foundations and companies, and providing a full range of both entrepreneurial and dramaturgical support to the musicals that it takes under its wings.
“We want to keep the musical as a vibrant and contemporary art form,” Hurwitz declared, “not a museum art form like opera. We want to be the next link in the chain of musical theater.”
The New York Musical Theater Festival runs through Oct. 17 at a series of venues all over Manhattan. For schedule information and tickets, $20, call OvationTix at (212) 252-3101 or visit www.nymf.org.