One of the most successful Jewish songwriters of all time, Burt Bacharach wrote no overtly Jewish tunes. But a new Off-Broadway show, “What’s it All About? Bacharach Reimagined,” will give New Yorkers the opportunity to assess the underlying Jewishness of Bacharach’s oeuvre. Featuring Kyle Riabko, who starred in “Spring Awakening” and “Hair” on Broadway, the show opens in December in the East Village.
Directed by Steven Hoggett, who was nominated for a Tony for “Once,” the new show will feature compositions by Bacharach and his longtime lyricist Hal David; the two wrote a string of hits in the 1960s and ’70s, including “Alfie,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and a host of songs that made Dionne Warwick a megastar, such as “Walk on By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Bacharach, 85, grew up in Forest Hills, Queens. He recalled in his just-published autobiography, written with Robert Greenfield, “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Atlantic Books, 2013), that “no one in my family ever went to synagogue or paid much attention to being Jewish.” Nevertheless, he was the first composer to be featured in John Zorn’s late-1990s “Great Jewish Music” series; in the CD’s jacket notes, Zorn thanks him for not changing his name and points out that Bacharach is “one of the great geniuses of American popular music — and he’s a Jew.”
In an interview, Riabko, 25, told The Jewish Week that while he did not grow up with this music, “I’m discovering it now, and I’m pumping my own feelings into the arrangements. It’s a non-stop 90 minutes of music, with no dialogue, and with strains of one song entering another in a kaleidoscopic way. So you hear the music and lyrics in a new light.”
Jonathan Freedman, author of “Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity” (Columbia University Press, 2009), says that what makes Bacharach’s music Jewish is his “wild play with time signatures; he is to time signatures what Gershwin is to chord changes.” He calls Bacharach “really audacious and experimental,” an example of what he sees Jewish artists doing as they “enter popular forms and make them their own.”
“What’s It All About?” begins previews on Nov. 19 for a Dec. 5 opening at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St. Tickets are not yet on sale, but information is available at www.nytw.org.