In a 1947 speech to a group of Jewish artists and scientists in New York, Arthur Miller decried the practice among prominent Jews of facing “away from Jewish life when one has a story to tell.” Miller insisted, “We wrong ourselves and our own art, as well as our own people, by drawing a curtain upon them.” In Abigail Pogrebin’s best-selling book of interviews, “Stars of David,” now showing, in musicalized form, at the DR2 Theater, that curtain is drawn back to permit a rare glimpse into the Jewish lives of celebrities.
With songs composed by a plethora of different composers and lyricists, the show has a grab-bag feel. But when it digs deeply into its subjects’ conflicts over their Jewish identity, as it consistently does, it achieves insights that will stay with you long after the lights go out.
It was an inspired idea to make “Stars of David,” itself based on performers and others in the public eye, into a performance in its own right. For the show foregrounds the very notion of public display — of taking what most of us consider to be private and advertising it. What does it mean, the show implicitly asks, to make the Jewishness of showbiz personalities into everybody’s business? For these stars, whose public image is, to a large extent, their stock in trade, their Jewishness is perhaps the final frontier in the exploration of their private lives. Given that, for most of the 20th century, achieving household-name status in America meant to some degree transcending one’s Jewish background, we know that often they have regarded their Jewishness as a liability rather than as a source of pride.
The signal achievement of “Stars of David,” directed by Gordon Greenberg and conceived by Pogrebin and Aaron Harnick, is that it is significantly thought-provoking, even as it stays on the level of a middlebrow entertainment. It features four singers of different body types — Janet Metz, Alan Schmuckler, Aaron Serotsky and Donna Vivino — who take turns impersonating different stars interviewed by Pogrebin. With photos, and sometimes short videos, of the real stars projected on the screen behind them, the performers bring the interviews vividly to life. Interwoven among the musical numbers are additional quotes from the book, which loosely tie the 15 songs together.
The cast members, who are dynamic and appealing, put forth winning performances. The show starts on a high note with Gaby Alter’s and Itamar Moses’ exuberant “Yitzy Magency,” about actor Andy Cohen’s bar mitzvah tutor who failed to show up for Cohen’s ceremony and tainted Cohen’s relationship with Judaism as a result. Many of the songs that follow also dramatize the subjects’ alienation from Judaism, from Schmuckler’s own composition “Balance,” about food critic Ruth Reichl’s German-Jewish father whose Holocaust experiences led him to embrace Protestantism, or Dan Messe and Nathan Tysen’s “Lenny the Great,” about Leonard Nimoy’s experience of anti-Semitism at the hands of a Boston magic shop proprietor. And in Tom Kitt and Pogrebin’s “As If I Weren’t There,” (based on the interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Jeanine Tesori and Susan Birkenhead’s “The Women Who Had No Names” (based on the words of Gloria Steinem) the painful exclusion of women from Jewish religion is highlighted.
Other songs seem to be designed mostly for comic effect; in David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr.’s “Smart People,” about writer Aaron Sorkin’s upbringing in Westchester, highlighting people’s intelligence was a code for talking about the fact that they were Jewish. And in Gaby Alter and Lynn Kargman’s regrettably one-note parody, “Gwyneth Paltrow,” the actress’ “platinum Gentile” looks are contrasted with her inner feelings of attachment to Judaism, symbolized, rather reductively, by the performers holding magazines with her picture on the cover and a diagram of a Jewish star inside.
But the humor is typically more sophisticated, as in Amanda Green’s “Just Be Who You Are,” about actress Fran Drescher’s insistence on her ethnic accent and mannerisms, and Sheldon Harnick’s “Norman,” in which TV producer Norman Lear’s “Book of Norman” is about using pop culture, (such as “All in the Family,” a clip from which is shown), to satirize bigotry and thus work for social justice.
The order in which these songs are presented seems random, and the different musical styles can be jarring. But most of the songs do achieve a remarkable level of emotional truth. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s “The Darkening Blue,” about shoe designer Kenneth Cole’s marrying a Catholic woman (Maria Cuomo) and agreeing to have his children raised as Catholics before later questioning his decision, is the show’s only reference to intermarriage; this is interesting, given how many Jewish celebrities who marry outside the tribe. Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen’s “L’Dor V’Dor” is a moving reflection on philanthropist Edgar Bronfman’s embrace of Judaism late in life, after being raised by a father who knew little about his religion and passed on still less to his son.
In one of the final and most stirring pieces, Michael Friedman’s “Horrible Seders,” playwright Tony Kushner recalls how his seders tend to devolve into acrimonious debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The celebrated writer explains how being Jewish was “invaluable preparation for being gay,” and how Judaism is like a house that has a room for everyone. It is an apt metaphor both for the Jewish tradition and for the show, in which the celebrities are, in a sense, returning to a childhood room — redecorating it, perhaps, but still finding a sense of belonging there. Perhaps the next musical will be one based on ordinary Jewish people talking about their own convoluted relationships to their heritage. Now that would make an interesting show. For there is a place for us all in that house.
“Stars of David” runs through Dec. 15 at the DR2 Theatre (103 E. 15th St., at Union Square). Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $75, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.StarsOfDavidSongs.com.