Jewish parents, beware! That seems to be the lesson from much autobiographical Jewish writing, as adult children come to grips with the childhood trauma that they have undergone. Think, for starters, of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” a 2006 graphic memoir turned into a moving, award-winning 2015 musical about her fraught relationship with her late father. Now comes “Goldstein: The Musical,” a show at the Actors Temple about another Jewish writer who divulges long-buried family secrets. At a time when even our president is struggling to suppress sordid aspects of his past, “Goldstein” reminds us that almost all of us have things to hide.
Directed by Brad Rouse, “Goldstein” opens with Louis Goldstein (Zal Owen), the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, giving a reading at the Actors Temple. As he speaks, he revisits the past, encountering his parents and grandparents at important moments of their lives. It gradually becomes clear that each generation of his family had a shameful secret or pivotal conflict, such as not letting a daughter go to medical school or trying to suppress a son’s homosexuality. Even as the surviving members of the family express feelings of betrayal, Louis insists on the truth of the stories that he has uncovered.
“Goldstein,” which premiered in New York in 2014 under the title, “The Goldstein Variations” (a play on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” named for the non-Jewish musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg), is notable for two reasons besides its very Jewish subject matter and venue: its creators, Charlie Schulman and Michael Roberts, are producing it themselves, and the score eschews contemporary style to pay homage to the great American musicals of the mid-20th century.
Schulman, who wrote the semi-autobiographical book (based on his 1998 play, “The Kitchen”), and Roberts, who wrote the music and lyrics, collaborated on “The Fartiste,” a 2011 musical about Joseph Pujol, the real-life late-19th-century performer who could do astounding things with his sphincter. Roberts went on to create the book, music and lyrics for the 2009 Off-Broadway show, “Golf: The Musical.”
“We all grow up and look at our families of origin and wonder why people did what they did,” Schulman told The Jewish Week in an interview. “We have fractured narratives, stories that we’ve overheard and experienced that we put together to explain who we are.” The play’s genesis occurred when Schulman was driving on Long Island; the car radio was tuned to a show in which listeners were asked to call in and reveal the skeletons in their closets. Schulman was, he recalled, “mesmerized.” He realized that there is “a lot of inequality and injustice baked into the fabric of family life. Each generation makes mistakes that can’t be taken back. What connects us is a shared sense of shame about the secrets and mistakes of the past.”
Then again, he reflected, siblings often view their parents in very different ways, as one song in the show, “Have You Met My Parents?” exemplifies; in it, a brother and sister have grown up with very different expectations of their parents because, as Schulman explained, “the siblings themselves have different personalities and their parents were at different times in their lives when they raised them.”
By producing the show themselves, Schulman said, he and Roberts are introducing a new economic model for New York theater, one based neither on “angels” giving huge sums to capitalize single shows, nor on nonprofit companies selling tickets to subscribers. “We have a lot of people who don’t usually invest,” he said. “There’s a kind of fantasy baseball aspect to it.” Artists like themselves, he added, “should be able to appeal directly to investors without the middleman.” Although he conceded that the show is being done on a shoestring budget, he called it a “low-cost alternative that is all about the life of the show.”
In an interview, Rouse suggested another benefit of the creators and producers being the same people, in that “the creative team is all in one room, so there isn’t such a long process of development for the production.” Indeed, the actors have only had three weeks of rehearsal and no out-of-town tryout — very little preparation time for a musical.
Rouse added that the venue has been a huge source of inspiration to him and to the cast. “This is such a lucky convergence of a space and a story,” he noted. “The Actors Temple is in the heart of Jewish show business in New York — you see plaques on the wall with names like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Milton Berle, all of whom were such great storytellers.” Because the framing device of the show is that Louis’ book talk at the Actors Temple itself, the show “feels native to the building.”
Heightening the emotional power of the production is the use not just of the center aisle of the sanctuary, but also of an “aisle of birth” and an “aisle of death” on the stage — areas of the playing space where important lifecycle events take shape, occasionally at the same time, as when a grandson is born just as the grandfather is passing away. Rouse called the piece “very emotionally intense,” as the characters “seek peace out of the process of reckoning with the past.”
Owen, 29, views his character as “airing all of this dirty laundry in order to get out of his own inner turmoil.” Because the publication of the book has not accomplished reconciliation among the family members, Louis “needs to forgive and reach out, even as the spirits of his parents and grandparents have come to express their disapproval.” Despite the pain that he is causing, Louis is “doing what he thinks is right, even if he may be a little egotistical, rude and selfish. But it’s hard to play a character if you see him in a negative way.”
Performing the play in a synagogue feels especially comfortable for Owen, who, from age 5, harmonized with his father during the Etz Chayim prayer at the end of the Torah service at their Conservative shul in Westfield, N.J. At 21, Owen joined the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” starring Harvey Fierstein; he played Motel the Tailor to Fierstein’s Tevye, and even got to co-star for a couple of weeks with Theodore Bikel, who took over for Fierstein. “I was the last Motel to perform with Bikel,” he said proudly.
Roberts sees the music that he wrote as “a new take on old-school, traditional Broadway. So many contemporary composers for musical theater seem to have fallen into a pop-ish, 1970s singer-songwriter style,” he said. He believes passionately in perpetuating the sound of Oscar Hammerstein, Julie Styne and other 20th-century Broadway composers. “There’s a permanence to these songs, with their stand-alone melodies and sophisticated lyrics with $20 words,” he insisted. “We’ve gotten so far away from that now that there is value in revisiting it.”
The composer attributed the preponderance of Jews among 20th century musical theater artists to, in large measure, the knowledge of classical music that so many Jewish immigrants brought to these shores. “George Gershwin, Frank Loesser and others came with strong classical musical training and cultural knowledge of music. Even among my own family, my great uncle played the violin; he could talk to me about Dvorak and Brahms in an intelligent way.”
But Roberts is keenly aware that he is in a minority, which he called “hard and a little lonely.” He compared writing musical theater songs to painting. “No one would do figurative painting such as that of Titian or Caravaggio except as a send-up of those artists. But why not continue in the grand tradition of American musical theater and not be ashamed of it? There is such a treasure trove of inspiration and style in the Great American Songbook.”
“Goldstein: The Musical” opens on April 5 at the Actors Temple, 339 W. 47th St. Performances are Mondays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $79, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.