The 2011 Tony Awards were announced this morning, and an admittedly shallow reading of the nominees suggests that it just might be least Jewish year on Broadway ever. In fact, it might just be the most Christian the Tony’s has ever been: "The Book of Mormon," "Sister Act" and the notoriously anti-semitic "Merchant of Venice" all stand out in the major categories.
Of course, some of the big-time nominees–and most notably, "The Book of Mormon"–had Jewish fingerprints all over: Matt Stone, who co-wrote "Mormon," has a Jewish mother, and the star, Josh Gad, is Jewish too. But as far as content is concerned, explicit Jewish content in this year’s nominees is next to nill. Unless of course you count "Venice," which contains one of the most hideous caricatures of Jews ever written.
Which is not to say it wasn’t a great play. I was a little turned off by the way chose Al Pacino’s portray Shylock’s Jewishness–he milked the shtetl Jewish stereotype, which seemed utterly anachronistic, for all it was worth. But I did admire director Daniel Sullivan’s decision to play the Jewishness up nonetheless. Unlike most contemporary productions of "Venice," which insist that Shylock solicit our sympathy, Sullivan wanted audiences to know that, in fact, Shakespeare had little such sympathy in mind. (Sullivan, as well as Pacino, are nominated for individual Tony’s too, by the way.)
Sure, Shakespeare gave his Jewish villain one hell of a self defense ("Hath not a Jews eyes…"), but as many have argued before, that same human dimension made the character’s cruelty only appear all the more real. Shakespeare wanted his Jewish villain not only to be fully thinking, fully human, he also wanted him to be wholly Jewish–with all the venality, maliciousness, duplicity and hindbound small-mindedness that, to Shakespeare’s original audience, being Jewish seemed to imply.
So who to root for this Tony season? Perhaps not "Venice," but I still have high hopes for "The Motherf***er With The Hat" and "Jerusalem" (that latter of which, in case you’re wondering, has nothing whatsoever to due with Jews). Haven’t seen either yet, but the reviews have been great, and I plan to soon.