JOIN/RENEW NOW      NEWSLETTER SIGNUP       CONTACT US   (212) 213-1002

A Legacy: Jews on Broadway”

A Legacy: Jews on Broadway”

Samantha Streit
April 5, 2014

Studying for my Bat Mitzvah has made me even more proud of my religion. It is not because of the big party I am about to have, the delicious matzo ball soup, or the eight nights of presents for Hanukkah; rather, I learned that my Jewish heritage happens to directly link to my passion: musical theater. Going through this Bat Mitzvah process has taught me that Jews were the originators of the American Musical and composed music or wrote lyrics for nearly every famous show.

My favorite musicals are the ones that make me speechless. I sit at the edge of my seat and can’t find just one part I love because I am overwhelmed by the music and performance. When I recently saw Cinderella on Broadway, it quickly became my favorite, on top of Wicked, which I have seen twice before that, and which has always been my absolute favorite. When I sit down and think about which musical is the best, more shows I’ve seen come to mind, like the first musical I ever saw, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which began it all for me, or a school musical I starred in called Once Upon a Mattress. Because of this, I began to investigate my obsession with these shows as a way to start my major project research. Rodgers and Hammerstein, two Jews, wrote the music and lyrics for Cinderella, and Steven Schwartz, another Jew, wrote Wicked. Two Jewish brothers, Richard and Robert Sherman, wrote the music and lyrics for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Once Upon a Mattress was, yes, also written by two more Jews, Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer. Through Judaism, theater was deeply connected to me before I even knew it. If I had to research anything, how could this not be my top choice?

Theater for me has always been a safe place where I can be whoever I want to be and express myself. This project made me realize I am not the first one to use theater as an escape. Theater was originally a way for Jews to escape from their sometimes-harsh realities and enjoy themselves. In the late 19th century, Jews were escaping Russia and Western Europe because of persecution. Given that they had already started to perform in Europe to help them cope with the terrible obstacles they faced, when they came to the new world, they continued performing in what became known as Yiddish Theater. On the Lower East Side of New York, where many immigrant Jews settled, performers were acting in Yiddish and helping to lighten the mood. Yiddish Theater became so popular that people began to pay money to see these often funny and educational shows. This went from a “pick-me-up” to a new tradition in the new world.

This once strictly Jewish tradition spread through New York City society as Yiddish Theater actors crossed over to Broadway. All types of people began to love Yiddish Theater, making Jewish people a vital part of the new New York City theater culture that was slowly developing in the early to mid-1900s. As this theater culture developed, it influenced the young Jewish children growing up at the time. The children who watched the expansion of Yiddish Theater became important contributors to the history of what we now call the “American musical.”

Even though it is now 2014, many Jewish children like myself are doing at least one of the same things as kids back in the early 1900s. Parents are taking us to see musicals and we are carrying on what has become a Jewish tradition. In my thirteen years, I have already seen numerous plays and musicals, and I take singing lessons, acting classes, dance classes, perform in shows, and do whatever else I can to be part of musical theater.

Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern elevated the tradition of Jewish people in theatre. Kern was born here in New York and Berlin immigrated as a very young boy. Both of them were part of the one of the younger generations of Jewish children being raised in America in the 1890s. Though born to parents from other countries, as young boys, Berlin and Kern always considered themselves American. As they grew older and began to create music, it was a new kind of music;they were a new kind of Jew.

Irving Berlin was one of the creators what eventually became known as“The American Song Book,” made up of all types of songs that people now consider classic American music. Although he started out writing songs about his own ethnic group, Berlin found fame writing songs like DzWhite Christmas,dzDzEaster Parade,dzand “Marie from Sunny Italy.” However, he grew up surrounded by Jews and his father was a cantor, and those influences seeped into his music. Berlin’s family emigrated from Russia for a better life. No matter what, his songs continued to have a Jewish feeling in them.

Just as Berlin created a brand new “American Style” of music, Jerome Kern began a whole new idea of musical theatre. Kern was a composer who created songs that are more similar to what we hear currently in musical theatre. Before him, musicals were based more on opera and fancy European songs. In 1914 he wrote,“They Didn’t Believe Me,” which was a song that had a lot of casual, slangy language in it, much like the musicals today, rather than the traditional operettas of the time.

Just as Berlin created a brand new “American Style” of music, Jerome Kern began a whole new idea of musical theatre. Kern was a composer who created songs that are more similar to what we hear currently in musical theatre. Before him, musicals were based more on opera and fancy European songs. In 1914 he wrote,“They Didn’t Believe Me,” which was a song that had a lot of casual, slangy language in it, much like the musicals today, rather than the traditional operettas of the time.

Later on, in the mid 20s, inspired by Kern and Berlin, more Jewish songwriters continued adding to the American tradition of Jewish music. The Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, wrote and composed even newer styles of music. George Gershwin brought jazz and blues into his American folk opera, Porgy and Bess. Although Porgy and Bess is about an African American community in South Carolina, like almost all other Jewish musicians’ work, Judaism seeped into all these songs. One of the best examples that only people that have been to temple would recognize is in the song “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The melody is the same exact melody you would hear at a traditional Bar or Bat Mitzvah right before the Torah is read:

“Barchu Et Adonai Ham’vorach,”

Which sounds like:

“It Ain’t Necessarily So”

The most clever and humorous part about this song, besides the hidden Jewish melody, is that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is about a group of African-American people discussing whether the words in the Bible are “necessarily so” or not.

Two more famous Jewish writers of musicals are Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, who met while Rodgers was at Columbia University and began to work together in the mid-1920s and 40s. Both of them grew up surrounded by the new type of American music created by Berlin and Kern, which was really all Jewish, and this inspired them to create some of the most amazing musicals of our time.

Two more famous Jewish writers of musicals are Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, who met while Rodgers was at Columbia University and began to work together in the mid-1920s and 40s. Both of them grew up surrounded by the new type of American music created by Berlin and Kern, which was really all Jewish, and this inspired them to create some of the most amazing musicals of our time.

While Hart and Rodgers were working together throughout the 20s and 30s, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein was working with a number of composers including Jerome Kern. Together Hammerstein and Kern wrote the first modern musical, Show Boat.

Finally, in the 1940s, Rodgers and Hammerstein joined forces, composed and wrote lyrics for another musical that I love, Oklahoma. It is another one of the great shows written by Jews that is not about Jews at all. This show is basically about a stereotypical America filled with cowboys, farmers, and their love stories. Rodgers and Hammerstein continued to control Broadway for two more decades writing South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I, and my personal favorite, Cinderella, written for TV.

Now that our world is more accepting of all cultures, I find it striking that Jews are still playing such an important role on Broadway, and that other cultures are still under-represented on the Great White Way. Yet, as our society becomes more modern, more and more races and religions are represented. Sondheim was and is the new generation on Broadway. He and Leonard Bernstein are the two men most responsible for generating the Broadway I have grown up around and loved. Another one of the best musicals I’ve watched over and over again for years is West Side Story, for which Bernstein composed the music and Sondheim wrote the lyrics and this show brought Broadway more up to date with jazz and style.

West Side Story, like the musicals that came before it, is not about Jewish life. However, before West Side Story was called “West Side Story,” it was actually written about the love between a Jewish girl and an Italian guy and was called “East Side Story,” about forbidden love between a Jew and an Italian. But in the 50s, Puerto Ricans were criticized and ostracized, and so West Side Story was reconfigured to tell the same tale as when the Jews first arrived in New York. This acculturation process keeps repeating itself: when different cultures first enter America, they are persecuted and have to prove their worth.

Although the Jews had earned their respect in musical theatre, they continued to work hard in this field. Sondheim is still working today and was joined by so many other Jewish musicians and lyricists, including: Richard Rodgers’ daughter, Mary Rodgers; the lyricist Sheldon Harnick; composer Jerry Bock; Charles Strouse; Stephen Schwartz; Marvin Hamlisch; and the list goes on and on. In my opinion, this list will never stop. Musical theatre started out as an activity I just happened to enjoy; it turns out that it was actually a tradition created for Jewish kids like me. I am part of the next generation of musical theater. It is crazy to think that something I do, simply out of choice, could have such a deep relation to my culture.

My research for this project became very real when I started to learn about Sheldon Harnick. That’s because many people I know have met Harnick and he has even chatted with my grandpa. When my grandfather was working as a lifeguard and waiter up in the Adirondacks at a hotel, he spent a summer getting to know Sheldon Harnick before he became famous. My grandpa always reminisced about that very special summer. Sheldon Harnick would later become known for his lyrics in dozens of musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof. Harnick also has worked with my TCC KidSchool teacher, Daniel, who also writes shows. Just last month, Daniel was generous enough to invite me and my parents to see one of Sheldon Harnick’s shows, “Tenderloin”. After seeing the show I was also able to meet Harnick and I was astonished to see how he just acted like any another guy. No matter where I look, it seems like all Jews have some connection to theater.

Mary Rodgers and I have a very strong link, but until I did this research, I didn’t even know it. She composed the music for the play, Once Upon a Mattress. I connect particularly with this show’s songs because if you know me, as many of you do, the songs are quirky and fun, which I think describes me, as well. This was the first school musical I starred in and was soon followed by me performing in another one; Beauty and Beast, yet another show with music written by, wouldn’t you guess it, Jews, including Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

I even have a strong link to Irving Berlin and the Gershwins! Jews throughout history, and even today, may not express their full Jewish identity in order to do what they think will lead them to more success. For example, my family pronounces my last name as “Street,” which sounds less Jewish than “Streit,” which is how it is spelled. It was my great grandma who decided that a less Jewish sounding name would help her family live a better life. This is also true for Irving Berlin, who was born Israel Isidore Baline, as well as Ira and George Gershwin’s real names, Israel and Jacob Gershowitz. Anti-Semitism may be the reason shows by Jews are primarily not written about Jewish culture. This is because of stereotypes. Judaism, for centuries, was judged and marginalized.

Fiddler on the Roof is the most famous musical about Jewish life. Joseph Stein wrote the script, and Jerry Bock composed the songs for which Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics. Fiddler helps to tell the story of a Russian town, Anatevka, where Jews are being forced to leave due to a Russian pogrom. The families of the town are not only dealing with dislocation, but also with changing times as their children begin moving away from Jewish traditions. Everyone in the story, no matter how rigid his or her outlook, breaks a tradition. The play is a comedy written about tragedy.

The most humorous and challenged character in Fiddler of the Roof is the father, Tevye. He is struggling between deciding whether he wants his daughters to love and act freely or if he should make them obey the old-fashioned Jewish traditions. The situation with each daughter is handled differently and with humor. Usually, Tevye finds that breaking Jewish traditions to allow his daughters to live a happier life isn’t so wrong and he can find ways to adapt traditions for his family.

This relates to Humanistic Judaism which values some of the traditions of Judaism, but allows Jewish people to make the best choices for their own lives even if it means breaking traditions, like me having this non-traditional Bat Mitzvah.

The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein is another musical that touches upon Jewish themes, including the Holocaust. The movie was made in 1965 about a gentile family coping with the occupation of the Nazis in Austria in the 1930s. In this play, the Nazis are the villains as they were in reality. The Von Trapp family is able to survive and stay strong through music.

While The Sound of Music presents the Nazis as villains and offered a realistic way for people in the 1960s to talk about Hitler and Germany, it is a polar opposite to the approach that Mel Brooks took in the 1960s with The Producers. The Producers was the most modern movie musical written about Jewish life, and was of course written by a Jew. Mel Brooks wrote the movie and the songs, which later he adapted into a Broadway show, and it is naturally hysterical. The Producers was written in 1968 about a fading producer, Max Bialystock, the former “King of Broadway,” who tries to raise money to make hits on Broadway like he used to, along with his Jewish accountant. When the accountant jokes that the producer would make more money from a flop, and then explains how this could really work, the two of them team up and set out to create a horrible, tasteless show. They decide to make it a merry show about Hitler and the Holocaust, the most deplorable of subjects, and call it “Springtime for Hitler.” But when the audience decides it is a comedy, rather than a serious show, it becomes a hit, which ruins their plans.

This show illustrates how Jewish people heal with humor. However, the exaggerated humor in The Producers, and the over the top, unrealistic jokes Mel Brooks wrote, were clearly used to take the power away from the evil events that had occurred. When the film was released, some people were extremely offended; however, both German and Jewish audience members have said that this was the first time they were able to laugh about this disturbing topic.

One less popular, but still great, musical movie from 1983 is Yentl, written by Jack Rosenthal and based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, with songs written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and music by Michael Legrand. Yentl is another musical written by Jews about Jewish life and its struggles. Like Fiddler on the Roof, this movie questions traditional Judaism and examines the desire to break those traditions. Yentl is about a girl who seeks the Jewish education that only Jewish men were provided in Poland in the early 1900s. Yentl hits some amusing, yet serious obstacles along the way, including falling in love with a boy who was in her boy’s-only study group, and having a girl, who thinks Yentl is a boy, fall in love with her. The story is just one big Polish love triangle. Eventually, Yentl, through song, learns how to survive it all. This movie is also known for another famous Jewish musician, director and star Barbara Streisand.

The musical Spamalot, written by the Monty Python group, premiered in 2005. The song “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” explains everything about Jewish people’s contributions to musical theater in the cleverest way. The lyrics state: “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Just like this song details, today it is a given that Jewish people are woven into Broadway’s roots and continue to play a large part in contemporary Broadway. Jewish people, who are mainly responsible for the beginning and progression of Broadway itself, wrote most of the beautiful songs and shows that make up Broadway, as we now know it. Like Sondheim being mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, and Rodgers and Hammerstein joining forces, it has become clear to me that part of our Jewish lives is working together to do something great. Jewish creative people combining their strongest talents, whether musical ability, humor, optimism, writing skills, or more, leads to the best kind of show.

Musical theater has always been yet another family I can count on, along with school, my friends, and of course, my mom and dad. Now having a stronger grasp of how my Jewish identity is so deeply connected to the world of musical theater, I feel even more a part of it all. Studying Jews in musical theater has made me feel less of an observer, and more of a contributor. Who knows, maybe in thirty years, some young girl will study Jews in musical theater and read all about me?

I would love to sing a song for all of you from the Broadway show, Billy Elliot, with songs by Elton John and Lee Hall. I chose this song because from the first time I heard it, it spoke to me. Although it was not written by Jews, by sharing this song with you all at my Bat Mitzvah, we are bringing it into the fold. Rather than it being created by Jews, it illustrates my love for musicals and is one that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Even though years have passed since I first heard the song, I continue to hum it all the time. It goes like this:

I can’t really explain it,
I haven’t got the words
It’s a feeling that you can’t control
I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are
And at the same time something makes you whole
It’s like that there’s a music playing in your ear
And I’m listening, and I’m listening and then I disappear

And then I feel a change
Like a fire deep inside
Something bursting me wide open impossible to hide
And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird
Like electricity, electricity
Sparks inside of me
And I’m free I’m free

It’s a bit like being angry,
it’s a bit like being scared
Confused and all mixed up and mad as hell
It’s like when you’ve been crying
And you’re empty and you’re full
I don’t know what it is, it’s hard to tell
It’s like that there’s a music playing in your ear
But the music is impossible, impossible to hear
But then I feel it move me
Like a burning deep inside
Something bursting me wide open impossible to hide
And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird
Like electricity, electricity
Sparks inside of me
And I’m free I’m free
Electricity, sparks inside of me
And I’m free, I’m free
I’m free. Free I’m free