A More Perfect Union?
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A More Perfect Union?

Intermarriage theme gets a new twist in ‘It Shoulda Been You.’

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Skyrocketing rates of intermarriage may be no laughing matter for many observers of the American Jewish scene, but Jewish-Christian unions have been a durable theme of American Jewish humor since the runaway success of the 1922 Broadway comedy, “Abie’s Irish Rose,” which spawned a whole series of plays and films about the clash of ethnic stereotypes. With the opening this season of “It Shoulda Been You,” a new Broadway musical comedy by Barbara Anselmi and Brian Hargrove, the intermarriage theme gets a 21st-century twist. Tyne Daly stars as Judy Greenberg, the mother of the hapless bride, while Harriet Harris plays Georgette Howard, the prospective new mother-in-law.

Directed by David Hyde Pierce (best known for playing Niles on “Frazier”), “It Shoulda Been You” has been in development for more than a decade; it ran in 2011 at the George Theater in New Brunswick, N.J., and in 2012 at the Village Theatre in Seattle. The musical centers on an interfaith couple, Rebecca Steinberg (Sierra Boggess) and Brian Howard (David Burtka), that resolves to wed despite the strenuous parental objection. Further complications ensue upon the arrival of the bride’s ex-boyfriend, Marty (Josh Grisetti), who, because he is Jewish, would have been a more appropriate choice from her parents’ perspective.

As the nuptials spiral out of control, the sister of the bride, Jenny Steinberg (Lisa Harris), who is also the co-maid of honor, takes matters into her own hands to try to save the day. Ultimately, the members of both families learn much more about each other — and about themselves — than they had ever anticipated.

Anselmi grew up in Livingston, N.J.; she based the setting for “It Shoulda Been You” on Crystal Plaza, a local event hall where many Jewish life cycle celebrations take place. But the overall theme, she told The Jewish Week, was inspired by one summer in which she attended a lot of weddings, and noticed that what was transpiring at the periphery of the event, in the interactions among the family members and other guests, was often more interesting than the ceremony itself. She was training at the time at the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, and she asked each of the other students in the class to write a song set at a wedding. A tune about an ex-boyfriend crashing a wedding “landed like gangbusters,” she said.

Because her mother is Jewish and her father is Italian Catholic, Anselmi (who jokingly calls herself a “pizza bagel”), was drawn to the idea of composing a musical about a couple from different religions. But in the end, she said, it is Jenny, the older sister who desperately wants to get married herself, who ultimately needs to lead her sister out of their parents’ shadow, so that each can, as Anselmi put it, “lead her own life.” One of Anselmi’s favorite songs in the musical, “You Never Really Know,” is sung to Jenny by her mother; it urges her to “stop waiting for everything to be perfect.”

Hargrove, who is Pierce’s life partner, contributed both the book and lyrics for “It Shoulda Been You.” The North Carolina native attended Juilliard as an actor and spent 10 years performing before breaking into Hollywood as a scriptwriter for sitcoms, including “Designing Women.” But a chance meeting with Anselmi, who had been the music director for a summer stock theater production in which he had once acted, hooked him on the idea of working with her.

His idea for the show, Hargrove recalled, was to depict the clash between an “old money” family and one that, in his words, “earned every penny that they’ve gotten — they arrived as immigrants and worked their way up.” The two mothers “use everything in their arsenal to try to prevent the wedding from happening.” At the same time, Hargrove said, he crafted a story with a lot of plot twists, so that the audience would be “kept on their toes and constantly shocked” throughout the course of the musical. Hargrove is especially enamored of a big production number that takes place at the hair salon where the ladies are all preparing for the ceremony; the overconfident wedding planner (Edward Hibbard), tries to assure the feuding women that everything will turn out just right.

Pierce, who is new to directing on Broadway, sees “It Shoulda Been You” as a play about “families who didn’t used to hang out together who are now forced together in a high-octane situation in which their differences come to the forefront. At the same time, the show is about trying to fulfill familial expectations when you don’t always know exactly what those expectations are.” He calls it a “very layered show” that is full of surprises — “you think that you know what’s going on but then the layers get stripped away and there are bigger conflicts and revelations.” He is especially pleased with the cast, which includes two other actors from “Frazier.”

While a number of other musicals are opening on the Great White Way this season, Pierce thinks that “It Shoulda Been You” will stand out. “It’s an old-fashioned musical but also a modern romance,” he observed. “It’s a completely original show with great wit and heart that is going to radiate as it sits there on Broadway. People will come in and get warm.”

“It Shoulda Been You” starts previews on March 17 for an April 14 opening at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Performance schedule varies; for tickets, $65-$155, call (877) 250-2929 or visit ticketmaster.com.

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