From the rival lovers in “Oklahoma” to the interracial relationships in “South Pacific,” romance has always been a major theme of the Broadway musical. Now come three new productions in the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) that give a 21st-century Jewish spin to themes of love and sex. From Lee Kalcheim and David Shire’s “My History of Marriage,” to Carl Kissin and Robert Baumgartner Jr.’s “Date of a Lifetime,” to Nikki MacCallum and Brandon James Gwinn’s “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” each provides an extravagantly comic take on human attraction. The festival begins next week and runs through Oct. 16 at a variety of locations on the West Side of Manhattan.
“My History of Marriage,” directed by Michael Bush and starring Steve Blanchard and Bonnie Franklin (of “One Day at a Time” fame), is about a recently divorced Jewish writer for New York Magazine who pens a book about the evolution of marriage, even as she evades the romantic attentions of her ex-husband, publisher and rabbi. Beginning with prehistoric men carrying women off to their caves, and proceeding through spoofs of weddings in biblical, Roman, medieval and early modern times, the musical ends with the gay nuptials of our own day.
Kalcheim, who hails from Philadelphia, won an Emmy for an episode, “The Bunkers and the Swingers,” that he wrote for the 1970s TV show “All in the Family.” He is the author of many plays, including “Breakfast with Les and Tess,” which ran Off-Broadway in the early 1980s. Shire, who is married to actress Didi Conn, was Barbra Streisand’s longtime accompanist. He has written both Broadway (“Baby” and “Big”) and Off-Broadway (“Starting Here, Starting Now” and “Closer Than Ever”) musicals with Richard Maltby, Jr. He has also composed scores for numerous films, including “All the President’s Men” and “Norma Rae,” for which he won an Oscar.
“George W. Bush said that marriage is sanctified by the Bible,” Kalcheim told The Jewish Week, “but weddings are barely mentioned in the Bible.” Yet even as the musical makes comic hay out of famous royal weddings that sprang from ludicrous wars and grandiose sexual conquests, it still demonstrates a reverence for ritual. “Rituals keep us together — they keep us safe, together and close,” Kalcheim noted.
By contrast, Kissin’s “Date of a Lifetime,” directed by Jeremy Dobrish, is about a fantasized marriage rather than series of real ones. It follows Marvin (Jamie LaVerdiere), a Jewish man who takes an unconventional approach to a speed date with a non-Jewish woman named Katie (Farah Alvin). Rather than simply tell her some basic facts about himself, Marvin imagines them already married. As the two characters act out all the potential phases of their marriage, they project what their entire life together could be like.
Kissin, who grew up on the Upper West Side, worked for many years with the New York improv club, Chicago City Limits. He has written hundreds of sketches and song parodies, some of which have been performed on “The Today Show.” His other musicals include “Alone World,” about people who are too engrossed in smartphones and computers to pay attention to each other, and the not-yet-produced “Depressed, Depressed,” about a standup comedian who is feeling blue.
Whenever two people go out on a date, Kissin said, “there’s always this moment when they start projecting ahead, wondering if there’s a possibility of a lifelong attraction.” Kissin said that he has always been fascinated in this regard by dates between Orthodox Jews. “They sit for hours in a public place and check each other out, thinking about marriage from the first date.” But while many single New Yorkers have a great desire to be married, Kissin said that he knows many who “perhaps because they were too picky or too busy with their careers, never got paired up.”
Finally, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” with music and lyrics by Gwinn and book by MacCallum and Kelvin Moon Loh, is the most contemporary of all; it is an autobiographical look at the trials and tribulations of Internet Jewish dating. MacCallum, who also plays the lead (also named Nikki) copes with pressure from her mother and grandmother to find a nice Jewish boy. Unfortunately, the age-old rules that she is trying to follow are more appropriate for an Eastern European shtetl than for life in New York. As a result, she is vexed by the behavior of the men she meets online: from one who lures her to his apartment with the promise of a glass of wine and a Netflix film only to announce the next morning that he is making aliyah, to a seemingly sedate fellow who turns out to be a swinger.
Despite finding so many Jewish men with serious shortcomings, the protagonist is, MacCallum pointed out, “just as much someone else’s JDate disaster as they are hers.” In real life, “everyone connects differently with each other, and it’s all about finding the right chemistry — everyone is perfectly imperfect in their own way.”
Isaac Robert Hurwitz is the executive producer of the festival, which receives about 400 applications each year for about 30 slots. He told The Jewish Week that the three Jewish shows in this year’s festival represent three different ways in which shows get selected for production. While “My History of Marriage” was invited to apply because of its well-known authors, “Date of a Lifetime” was chosen through the festival’s double-blind application process, and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” was placed in the festival’s set of musicals that receive a concert-style staging rather than a full production.
In looking for shows to include in the festival, Hurwitz said, the committee members look for “good bones, a good sense of structure, some real craft and a strong voice.” They ask: “Is this a story that people will want to spend an hour and a half to two hours sitting with? Is this is a voice that we want to encourage? Is this is the right moment for this show?” — all questions, one might note, not unlike those that one might use in seeking a potential mate.
The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) runs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 16. For tickets, $25, call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.nymf.org.