As Bette Midler prepares to star in Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway this spring, a rare opportunity to see Herman’s first Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey,” comes this week, in a concert version presented by the York Theatre Company. Less well known than Herman’s later shows (which also include “Mame” and “La Cage Aux Folles”), “Milk and Honey,” which takes place in Israel in the early 1960s, is unsurpassed in its exuberance and brio. When it opened on Broadway in 1961, starring Robert Weede, Mimi Benzell and Molly Picon, critic John McClain, writing for the New York Journal-American, called it “sumptuous, melodic and rousing.” It will be followed later this month at the York by another of Herman’s lesser-known musicals, “Dear World,” starring Tyne Daly.
In “Milk and Honey” a group of American Jewish widows led by plucky Clara Weiss (Alix Korey) venture to the Holy Land to try to find Israeli mates (or, as they put it, “six-foot souvenirs”). One of the widows, a dress shop owner named Ruth Stein (Anne Runolfsson, “The Phantom of the Opera”) falls in love with an American Jewish man from Baltimore, Phil Arkin (Mark Delavan, “Tosca”), who is visiting his married daughter at her moshav in the Negev. But Arkin, who is separated from his wife but not divorced, has a crisis of conscience about their relationship. Meanwhile, Clara feels obliged to implore her dead husband, Hymie, for permission to marry Sol Horowitz, whom she meets in Tel Aviv.
As dated as this premise may sound, it somewhat parallels that of Melanie Zoey Weinstein’s 2009 Fringe Festival hit play, “Sex and the Holy Land,” about female Jewish college students going on Birthright Israel to bed Israeli soldiers. But beyond the fact that Israel continues to loom large in the erotic imagination of American Jews, the musical’s enduring strength is not its book, which was written by Don Appel, but its score.
These songs include the soaring title ballad, along with priceless comic numbers such as “Chin Up, Ladies,” in which Clara gives her fellow travelers marching orders to “Climb every mountain to find your Mister Snow,” neatly encapsulating references to both “The Sound of Music” and “Carousel.” When “Milk and Honey” was revived Off-Broadway in 1994, David Richards of The New York Times admitted that even though he “wouldn’t want to dismiss” Herman’s later musicals, he wondered if “his very best work came first?”
In Herman’s memoir, “Showtune” (Dutton, 1996), the composer and lyricist remembers the Broadway producer Gerard Oestreicher sending him and Appel to Israel to learn first-hand about the country and its inhabitants. The Israeli government, eager for good publicity, put them up at the King David and other luxury hotels. Nevertheless, it was the desert, Herman recalled, “that really etched itself in my mind,” exulting that he “couldn’t get over how these people had taken this barren part of the world and turned it green and fertile.”
From this experience in the Negev, Herman was inspired to write the patriotic title song, with the refrain “This lovely land is mine.” To provide balance, he also included a cynical character, Adi (Jacob Heimer, “Soul Doctor”) who utters the only negative sentiments about Israel in the show, complaining that “the honey’s kind of bitter and the milk’s a little sour” and calling the landscape “barren and torrid and arid and horrid.” (He also rhymes “the border where the Syrians attack” and “the Arab with the rifle in your back.”)
Michael Unger, who is directing “Milk and Honey,” is the associate artistic director of the York. In an interview he told The Jewish Week that the show’s theme of love between American women and Israeli men is a metaphor for the relationship between the United States and Israel, though the strength of that relationship has been called into question of late. He called the music as “melodic and tuneful as any of Herman’s other scores,” but lamented that the concert production, which is based on only five days of rehearsal, cannot include any dances, which he called a “massive” part of the show, “as groundbreaking as the dream ballets in ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Carousel.’”
This is a pity, Unger said, because the musical is unlikely to have a Broadway revival any time soon. “I’m not sure if the modern Jewish woman would go with a bus of canasta-playing Hadassah ladies to Jerusalem to find a husband. She’s more likely to be wearing a pink hat and marching in D.C.” (He speculated, however, that the character of Clara Weiss is a “first draft” of the widow Dolly Levi Gallagher in “Hello, Dolly!”)
For Edna Nahshon, a theater historian who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the main reasons for the popularity of the original production — although it holds the dubious distinction of being the first Broadway musical to run for more than a year and still lose money — was that it depicted Israel in a romanticized way. “It presented the young, naïve, hopeful Israel that American Jews wanted to see — an agricultural country where people toiled the soil and ate oranges.” She noted that “Milk and Honey,” with its overt Jewish content, foreshadowed other ethnic Jewish musicals of the 1960s, including “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Funny Girl.”
Alix Korey, who plays Clara, is fresh from performing the role of Yente the Matchmaker in “Fiddler.” (Picon played that role in the 1971 film adaptation of “Fiddler,” so Korey is finding herself in two Picon roles back-to-back.) She calls her character “very optimistic and energized.” In talkbacks, she said that audience members are “amazed at how relevant it continues to be in this day and age. They express the hope that someday everyone will have a homeland.”
She also praised the piece’s “tremendous humanity, its unusual love story between a middle-aged couple.” The composer (who left the cast a congratulatory voice mail in which he called “Milk and Honey” his “first baby”), is, she said, “God’s gift to middle-aged actresses — he’s given them most of the really great roles on the Broadway stage.”
“Milk and Honey” runs through this weekend at the York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s Church (619 Lexington Ave., just east of the corner of 54th Street). Performances are Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, $45, call the box office at (212) 935-5820 or visit yorktheatre.org.