Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy – screened by PBS in January – has just become available on DVD. Produced, written and directed by Michael Kantor, this documentary explores the phenomenal contribution to the Broadway musical which was made by Jewish Americans between 1920 and 1970.
“Jewish composers and lyricists created the Broadway musical,” says Barbara Brilliant, Creator and Executive Producer of the film. “Along with a handful of other talents like George M Cohan and Cole Porter, they fashioned a new, quintessentially American art form.”
Narrated by Tony® and Academy Award® winner, Joel Grey, the documentary tells the story of what Barbara Brilliant describes as “a small group of songwriters who created such a powerful art form that it has resonated for generations. America changed the Jews,” she says, “and Jews changed America …. for good.”
The works of legendary figures such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are featured as the film looks at the lead taken in the creation of the Broadway musical by Jewish composers and lyricists. There are interviews with composers and celebrities, including Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Schwartz, Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents, Charles Strouse, Mel Brooks, and San Francisco Symphony Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, whose grandparents were pioneers of the American Yiddish theater.
There’s a particularly delightful anecdote from Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie. Bernstein’s father was, so the story goes, devastated that his son aspired to become a musician instead of inheriting the family business, the Samuel J Bernstein Hair Company in Boston. When asked, much later, by a journalist whether it was true that he’d refused to pay for his son’s piano lessons so as not to encourage him, he replied: “Well how was I supposed to know he’d turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?”.
The film also explores the possible reasons for the success of Jewish songwriters and lyricists in creating what Michael Kantor calls “a uniquely American art form with the Broadway musical”. Composer Maury Yeston says, “You cannot simply say there is one monolithic style or element to Jewish music that affects Broadway. There are numerous incredibly important musical streams.”
There are excerpts from productions such as Showboat, Porgy and Bess, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Annie and Cabaret – and with the inclusion of West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl, we’re reminded that Jewish composers and lyricists weren’t the only contributors to the success of Broadway. West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl and On the Town, for example, were all the result of the creative genius of choreographer and director, Jerome Robbins, the son of Jewish immigrants.
This two-disc DVD set from Athena includes a bonus disc with three hours of additional interview clips and performances, a 16-page viewer’s guide with an introduction by Barbara Brilliant and additional thoughts on Jewish Broadway by those who were closely connected with it, as well as a biography of narrator, Joel Grey. The DVD set, available in North America only at present, can be ordered from Acorn Online.
With perfect timing, following the release of the DVD, the New York City Center opens a production of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s On Your Toes. This musical, the first to successfully integrate classical ballet into the Broadway musical format, involves gangsters, vaudeville and classical ballet. It premiered at the Imperial Theatre on April 11, 1936, and ran for 315 performances, featuring numbers such as Glad to be Unhappy and There’s A Small Hotel, and includes George Balanchine’s legendary ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
This latest production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, with music direction by Rob Fisher, stars Christine Baranski, Kelli Barrett, Walter Bobbie, Jeremy Cohen, Dalton Harrod, Randy Skinner, Shonn Wiley and Karen Ziemba. Also in the cast are principal dancers Irina Dvorovenko from American Ballet Theatre, and Joaquin De Luz of New York City Ballet.
New York City Center Encores! has presented 57 musical productions since its founding in 1994, for an audience of more than half a million people. This series celebrates the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists. Each season, Encores! gives three great scores the chance to be heard as their creators originally intended. The productions are put together with just eight days of rehearsals, and one day of dress rehearsal, and the shows run for seven performances, backed by the Encores! Orchestra.
On Your Toes opens tonight, May 8, and runs until Sunday, May 12. For more information, visit the New York City Center website.