From The Shtetl To The Great White Way

From The Shtetl To The Great White Way

PBS documentary traces the Jewish underpinnings of the Broadway musical.

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.

In his best-selling book, “The Gifts of the Jews,” Thomas Cahill claims that monotheism, the Western system of justice and the idea of democracy are all Jewish inventions.

Add another major feature of our society to the list: the Broadway musical. Airing on New Year’s Day, Michael Kantor’s “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” persuasively demonstrates that Jewish composers developed the musical from the confluence of traditional Eastern European liturgy, Yiddish folk song and African-American musical rhythms.

Kantor is no stranger to Broadway; he produced the six-part, Emmy-winning series “Broadway: The American Musical” that aired in 2004. He is also an expert on Jewish culture, as he showed in the six-part “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business in America,” the 2009 series about Jewish comedians hosted by Billy Crystal, and in a recent documentary about the Yiddish theater stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. But the new documentary is the first major film to explore the Jewish underpinnings of the Broadway musical. It is framed by David Hyde Pierce singing (from “Spamalot”), “In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose … you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”

Directed and written by Kantor, and narrated by Joel Grey, the documentary traces the birth of musical theater to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where Jews, steeped in a centuries-long tradition of cantorial music, internalized forms of musical expression such as the minor key. When they immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Jewish artists became enamored of black music, which they married to their own liturgical and folk traditions. The result, in the hands of a diverse array of composers and lyricists from Irving Berlin and George Gershwin to Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne and Jerry Herman, was a uniquely American — and almost exclusively Jewish, with the one exception of Cole Porter — art form. Their success in musical theater, the film suggests, was extraordinarily validating for Jews as they strove for acceptance in American society.

The 90-minute documentary features a blend of interviews with experts — many of whom are shown sitting at the piano and demonstrating the links between show tunes and Jewish music —with archival footage of great composers and performers. The latter include Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America,” Zero Mostel warbling “If I Were a Rich Man,” and Grey performing his celebrated numbers from “Cabaret.” Along the way, some wonderful anecdotes emerge, such as that of Ethel Merman (who many mistakenly thought was Jewish) bringing a ham sandwich to Jule Styne’s seder, or Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart meeting at Camp Paradox in the Adirondacks.

Jewish composers, the documentary suggests, used their position as quintessential outsiders in America to reflect back on the society its own deepest divisions — especially those between the races — to create enduring musicals that had both an implicit darkness and a jubilant, ebullient, optimistic tone. Their history of misery combined with their great faith in America can be seen, the documentary shows, in “Porgy and Bess,” “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “Gypsy,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” and “The Producers,” among many others. This underlying psychological complexity led to the late twentieth century work of Stephen Sondheim, who downsized the musical into a poignant, bittersweet study of human relationships.

In an interview, Kantor noted that there are only three art forms that are indigenous to America: jazz, abstract expressionist art and the Broadway musical. His aim in the documentary, he explained, was to show “how all these amazing talents created a uniquely American art form drawing on their Jewish heritage in one way or another, and how did their Jewish backgrounds influence the form?” Kantor noted that the Jewish composers differed from one another in significant ways — some, like Berlin and Gershwin, were from impoverished upbringings on the Lower East Side, while others, like Hammerstein and Sondheim, were from wealthy families. But all were “in love with the idea of America and what it promised.”

Maury Yeston, the composer of “Nine” and “Titanic” and a former professor of music theory at Yale, is one of the scholars who appear in the film. He told The Jewish Week that the strength of the documentary is that it “avoids sociological clichés about Jewish and African-American suffering and slavery. Instead, it focuses on the musicological streams that came together to create the Broadway show.”

Noting that many composers have been the sons and grandsons of cantors, Yeston sees the roots of the musical in the synagogue. Yeston summoned up the image of an Orthodox synagogue in Eastern Europe, presided over by a white-robed man who was “singing at the top of his lungs, exploding in melody with oversized human emotions.” Even the seder, he said, is a “musical event that tells a story.” The experience in synagogue on the Sabbath and on holidays, he suggested, “funneled into a preparatory school for the rhetoric of the Broadway musical.”

Barbara Brilliant is the lead producer of the film. She conceived of the idea after seeing Kantor’s earlier Broadway documentary and realizing that the Jewish contribution to musical theater had not been told. She spent years getting Kantor and others on board and raising money for the project. She feels enormously vindicated by the result. “This is the kind of film that these Jewish composers deserve,” she said, “a first-class product that is commensurate with the influence that they exerted on American culture.”

“Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” airs on Tuesday, Jan. 1 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS, Channel Thirteen.

read more: