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Jane Enkin

Film Review of Broadway Musicals A Jewish Legacy:Rady JCC's Tarbut 2014

by Jane Enkin, November 2014






[Editor's note:The following is Jane Enkin's review of "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy" which was featured at this year's  Rady JCC Tarbut festival]


Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy (2013, American,) opens with a terrifically deadpan delivery of a number from the musical Spamalot, “You Won't Succeed on Broadway...if you don't have any Jews.” Director Michael Kantor makes a convincing case for the truth of this proposition.


I enjoy this genre – a talking heads film with plenty of interviews, wonderful old photos, and satisfying snippets of songs from filmed performances and Hollywood versions of Broadway shows. The composers, lyricists and their family members are good storytellers, and the academic experts make interesting observations. It should be noted that this film with its many profiles does not come close to exhausting the list of Jewish Broadway composers and lyricists – there are too many to introduce them all in one film.


Some time is spent on the influence of Jewish music on American music from the turn of the last century to the 1940's or so. The claim is made that the Yiddish musical theatre of Second Avenue had an influence on Broadway. (I remain unconvinced.) Irving Berlin wrote a few numbers in Yiddish, and some novelty English songs on silly Jewish themes. The young Jewish composers who made a mark on Broadway, however, were assimilated English speakers – we learn, for example, that George Gershwin was rejected as “too American” for the Yiddish theatre.


Yet it is Gershwin who is shown here to have drawn on Jewish melodies. A musical expert plays “Di Grine Kusine” and Gershwin's “Swanee” to help us hear similarities, the opening of “Rhapsody in Blue” is compared to klezmer clarinet, and the sounds of the Barchu are heard in the song “It Ain't Necessarily So.” To use the call to the Torah for a song debunking the Bible is “the very definition of chutzpah.”


More generally, some interesting observations are made about the “hazzanish wail” and African-American music, with some good illustrations of traditional modes and blues scales. Composer Marc Sheiman makes the tired assertion that minor keys indicate misery, and says that Black music, with blue notes inserted into major scales, shows some faith and hope. The blending of Jewish, African-American and European sounds is a hallmark of Broadway music.


But the main focus of the film is on the reasons that Jews were drawn to the theatre, and their impact on Broadway and on America's self-image. Theatre is viewed here as a place where misfits and outsiders could come together and collaborate, a safe haven in a largely anti-Semitic country.


The stories they collaborated on concerned outsiders overcoming obstacles. Broadway provided a chance to make it in America, and the stories were about people who triumphed. “The America they make it in is the one they made” – the ideas known as the American Dream grew out of Broadway's fantasies.


The outsider stories often explored challenging territory. Some musicals, including Jerome Kern's Show Boat, explored issues of race. Disturbing themes come up in Pal Joey, Oklahoma, and South Pacific, where we hear “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” to be prejudiced.


In the 1960's, Jewish stories began to appear on Broadway. Fiddler On the Roof was yet another triumphant outsider story. The creators found that the concept of tradition was key to Fiddler's universality – audiences world-wide relate to the interaction of tradition and modernity. Other shows with Jewish characters included Funny Girl and Cabaret.


There are wonderful glimpses into immigrant experience. It's pointed out that Rodgers and Hart's first hit, “We'll Take Manhattan,” starts out with the Lower East Side – “It's very fancy on old Delancey Street, you know” – then moves on to the rest of the island. Irving Berlin embraced his new country and was very much embraced in return. His enduring hits include “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” Kurt Weill was successful in Germany, and when he moved to New York in the 1930's his music was already known there. He described his arrival by boat: “Everyone was looking at the new things they saw. My wife and I had the strange sensation that we were coming home.” He remained, we are told, “obsessed with assimilation and being different.”


Arthur Laurents, who wrote the libretto for West Side Story, talked about the show's focus on a group of recent immigrants. “It's a nation of immigrants, which we are very busy trying to deny,” he says. He points out the relevance of the story today in light of American struggles over immigration policy.


Stephen Sondheim's plays, the film lets us know, question whether the American Dream leads to happiness. “Ambivalence is essential – it's what drama is about.” But many of the songs in the film are anthems to optimism. Some showstoppers scream, “Look at me!” including “Rose's Turn” from Gypsy, Funny Girl's “Don't Rain On My Parade” and “I Am What I Am,” from La Cage Aux Folles. When Mel Brooks has Hitler sing “Heil Myself” in The Producers, he's not only poking fun at Hitler – “We're tough, we're sharp, we survive,” says Brooks – he's parodying this classic genre.


A different take on optimism comes in “Tomorrow,” from Annie. A highlight of the film is composer Charles Strouse quietly singing the song at his piano. It's the best rendition of “Tomorrow” I've heard, tender and subtle.


The people profiled in this movie are all men, with the exception of lyricist Betty Comden. I suppose this makes sense – women creators were few in the early, formative years of Broadway. (See my note at the end of this article for more on Jewish women as composers and lyricists.)


A much more glaring absence leaped out at me, because it was there in plain sight – a large number of the men discussed in this movie were/are gay. This was simply not mentioned, and it's relevant. In the analysis of this film, Jews were drawn to the arts because it was a safe place, a self-contained, inward-looking community where they would be accepted. They created shows about outsiders partly because of their empathy, and partly because they could covertly explore Jewish and immigrant experience in these stories – “I'll use someone else's story to tell you mine.” There was a shift in the 1960's when clearly Jewish characters began to appear, and the portrayals were positive and sympathetic.


The same narrative applies to gay Broadway creators, and in this film, the overlap was not noted. Lorenz Hart was a closeted man. Cole Porter, celebrated in this film as a non-Jew who felt he would be artistically successful when he could write “Jewish” songs, was too. Jerry Herman, who created the campy Hello, Dolly and Mame, is an openly gay man, and so is Stephen Sondheim. Herman went on to compose La Cage Aux Folles, discussed in the film as a 1980's return to the old-fashioned musical, with the outsider story this time concerning drag queens and long-term, committed gay love. And Marc Shaiman, composer of Hairspray, has been an activist for gay rights in California. Gay characters appear in musicals a bit later than Jewish ones, but not by much – for example, A Chorus Line, from 1975, includes a gay dancer, Jewish by the way.


So an unasked question remains: how did creators who were both Jewish and gay shape Broadway theatre and American culture? What was their experience, and how did it change over time?


What the film does address is fascinating and fun. Broadway musicals, we hear, are the Jewish legacy to America. And Leonard Bernstein's daughter could be speaking for many of these composers and lyricists when she says that he thought, “If he wrote a great enough piece of music he could change the world.”



A note about Jewish women Broadway composers:

One of the many perks of the kind of arts writing that I do is that I can indulge in web-surfing. My first thought – why were all these Broadway creators men – changed as I saw that over the generations, women entered the field. Many of them, not surprisingly, were/are Jewish. I say generations advisedly; Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers, composed the glorious show Once Upon a Mattress. Lyricist and libretto writer Dorothy Fields was the daughter of vaudeville performer Lew Fields. Amanda Green, daughter of lyricist Adolph Green, is a songwriter with some Broadway credits. I'm curious about Jeanine Tesori, composer of Caroline, or Change, about a relationship between a Black woman and a Jewish man, and Fun Home, dealing with queer themes (set to transfer to Broadway in April, 2015.) She was formerly known as Jeanine Levenson, but nothing in her on line bio mentions being Jewish. Elizabeth Swados' 1978 Runaways influenced me deeply as a young person – the show is a collage based on the improvisations of her young cast. “When I went to Joseph Papp in May of 1977, I had no script, no songs, no story line — just an idea, and an intuition about the potential of adolescents and how they have been grossly underestimated. I wanted to make a collage about the profound effects of our deteriorating families. I wanted to explore the substitutes people find to deal with the loss of family and how these substitutes are sometimes effective and sometimes self-destructive. I wanted to tap the energy of young people.” In 2011, Swados composed From the Fire. With little gained after a bitter five month strike, workers returned to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and then a fire in the unsafe building claimed 146 lives. 100 years later, as artists like Swados commemorated this injustice, unsafe working conditions still plague industry worldwide. “Memorializing is a Jewish composer’s job,” Swados said. “I feel in charge of memory on some level.”


On line sources for Elizabeth Swados:


Jane Enkin Music and Story at

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