Each generation reinterprets its family history, finding new connections and drawing new conclusions. Just ask playwright Charlie Schulman and composer Michael Roberts, who crafted “The Goldstein Variations,” a new musical about three generations of a Jewish family. Like Jon Robin Baitz’s recent play, “Other Desert Cities,” the work shows how a child’s tell-all memoir opens up fault lines within the family, as different generations join the battle to defend their respective understandings of the past. It will be performed in a workshop production beginning next Monday in Midtown.
Directed by Daniel Kutner, who is Harold Prince’s longtime associate director, the new musical is the tale of Lewis Goldstein (Erik Liberman), a modern-day, successful, thirty-something Jewish novelist who in his memoir reveals disgraceful family secrets, dating back to his immigrant grandparents.
Lewis’ aunt, Sherry (Analisa Learning) disputes her nephew’s version of the events, and insists on her own truths, including the sacrifice of her own career aspirations so that her brother, Nathan (Jim Poulous, who played the role of Mark Cohen on Broadway in “Rent”), Lewis’ father, could be a doctor. Among the standout songs is “Beloved,” in which long-hidden, never-read love letters are discovered.
Schulman’s other works include “Angel of Death,” a one-act comedy about Josef Mengele and the Nazis that was performed at the American Jewish Theater in 1992. He was inspired to write “The Goldstein Variations” by a radio show in which the disk jockey asked listeners to call in with their family secrets, and was inundated with people who wanted to talk about shameful events in their past.
“We all have fractured narratives,” Schulman told The Jewish Week. “Both oral and written traditions in our families are based on kernels of truth and different points of view.”
Roberts, who wrote the songs for “Greed,” the recent sketch comedy show that satirized Bernard Madoff, is a classically trained pianist turned musical theater composer. Like Bach’s famous piano work “The Goldberg Variations,” from which the musical takes its name, new play is a “set of variations on a theme,” he said — “in this case, of how Jewish identity changes over the generations.” He described the music, which includes ragtime, bossa nova and pop melodies, as “Anglo-American peppered with Eastern European.”
When the musical was first performed in 2011 in a workshop at American University, Roberts recalled, “People wanted to tell us stories. The show was cathartic; it spurred the audience members to open up, reconsider and get in touch with their own family histories.”
“The Goldstein Variations” will be performed at The Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St., on Monday, May 12 at 8 p.m., on Tuesday, May 13 and Wednesday, May 14 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., and on Thursday, May 15 at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call TheaterMania at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.theatermania.com.