The following essay about Jews and department stores was written by Lana Schwartz, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
If anyone knows me, they know I love Broadway. When I see a show, I come home and learn all the lyrics to every song. Then I sing the songs everywhere I go until people tell me to stop. But then I keep singing anyway. When I first started working on my major project about any subject I wanted having to do with Jewish history, I knew I wanted to write about the musical Rent. My mom’s friend, Carolyn, took me to see a final dress rehearsal in a studio before it went out on tour, and I fell in love with it. Jonathan Larson, who wrote it, was Jewish. When I told Rabbi Peter that I wanted to do my project about Rent, he asked me what it was in particular I liked about it. I just liked everything. Then, I thought about what I liked about any show. Well, it’s usually the sets, the lights, the performances and, of course, buying a poster and meeting the performers at the stage door.
Rabbi Peter suggested that I look for the reason a show might affect me and other people by looking at the social messages of each show. When I did, I realized how theatre can really touch people on a deep emotional level and help us see the world differently.
Then I looked at the creators of some of my favorite shows that I felt had important social messages: Rent, West Side Story, The Addams Family, Dear Evan Hanson and Wicked. What do you know? All Jewish writers and composers. I realized upon further research that so many Jewish writers and composers contributed to the world of Broadway. Jonathan Larson, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, and the list goes on and on.
So, I wanted to see if I could get in touch with some of these creators to find out what social messages they were trying to convey, how their Jewish background affected their works, and why these shows resonate so strongly with me.
I started my interview process. First, I interviewed Stephen Schwartz. Yes, that’s right. I was able to talk on the phone to the Stephen Schwartz who wrote Wicked, Godspell and Pippin. He asked what I was going to do with this information, and when I told him, he said it was a wonderful way for my congregation to handle a Bat Mitzvah, rather than simply have me memorize some passages and recite them. He said, “You think about something, things that are important to you and you write a paper about it, I think that’s excellent. So I admire your Rabbi.”
After I got over my nerves, I asked Mr. Schwartz about his Jewish upbringing.
He said that Jewish families have a tradition of ethics. He said that Jews over the years have faced persecution, having to move from one country to another because of their beliefs. So maybe, as a culture, it gives us an empathy for other people. That’s been very influential in terms of the themes that he deals with in his writing. He also said that he thinks it’s clear that he has concerns with issues of people taking personal responsibility for how they deal with others in their society and their world.
I personally feel this is important because I realized that everything you do can affect people’s lives, positively or negatively, so I resolved to try to always affect them in a positive way.
Then I went on to ask him about specific shows of his that I’ve seen that have really affected me.
In the case of Pippin, Mr. Schwartz said, the show is clearly about a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life and heading on a path toward self-destruction because he is unable, at least through most of the show, to commit to one thing and to accept that not everything is going to be completely perfect. There will be compromises, something that all of us deal with as we grow up. I agree because sometimes I try to be perfect, but I’ve come to learn and realize that life doesn’t work that way.
In Wicked, Mr. Schwartz talked about what it means or what it feels like to be an outsider from society and asking what of your own self are you willing to sacrifice in terms of your beliefs and standards in order to fit in? There have been times in my life where I’ve had to pretend to like something that I absolutely despised just to fit in. But then I started trying to find shared interests so I could be myself.
He also talked about truth vs. what people see, how we need to think about what’s presented to us and question if it’s the truth. Things are more complicated beneath the surface and behind the scenes. This show seems pretty relevant today in the world we are living in.
For Godspell, he spoke about the idea of different people with different points of view and how coming together to form a community is really important. He values the underlying teaching that is talked about in Godspell, which is basically The Golden Rule: “Always treat others as you would have them treat you”. Mr. Schwartz feels strongly about this basic principle. I agree with what he said that if everyone lived simply according to that advice, whatever their religion or belief system, we would be living in a better world.
Next, I interviewed Rick Elice, the writer of The Addams Family, Jersey Boys, and Peter and the Starcatcher. I asked him about the social messages that he tries to convey through his writing. He said that much of his writing is about the fact that he was not included in many things when he was growing up. He often felt like he was looking up to the glass, looking through the window, trying to get in. And, as a kid growing up, he felt those powerful feelings of wanting to be included and wanting to be a part of something larger than himself. As he put it, even though our life may be much more relaxed and we may have less pressure on us than, let’s say, a 12-year-old girl who is living in Yemen, it doesn’t make it any less meaningful when you feel that you don’t belong. He said that even your hardest times can inspire you to create things larger than yourself.
As a child, Mr. Elice participated in temple and found community there. He said the main themes that he writes about are family, community and finding your home. He described this as the feeling you have at the end of a long day that hasn’t gone so well, when you get to your room and close the door and think, “Oh thank God I’m here. Thank God I’m home.” Home is a state of mind, a state of heart.
Then, I asked him about one of my favorite shows of his, The Addams Family. I’ve always wanted to play Wednesday Addams, so it was so great to get an inside look on why this show affected me so much. He talked about a play written by Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill’s plays are always about family. Not the Jewish kind, but the heavy Irish drinking kind that I really shouldn’t see now, but later. Anyway, O’Neill wrote one comedy called Ah Wilderness, which is about a girl who wants to marry a boy who is not exactly what the families are looking for. And it’s about what’s considered normal and acceptable, and what’s not. He thought, “Oh that would be sort of interesting to look at through the characters of the Addams Family, because they’re all so strange. And that’s why we like them, because they’re so peculiar, but inside their world, they don’t see themselves as peculiar; they see the rest of the world as peculiar. They think they are normal.” So he said he stood on the shoulders of this great American dramatist of the 20’s. That’s his secret but I shouldn’t tell anybody. So forget I said anything.
The question was, how is Wednesday’s family going to accept people that they think are very strange? These normal people from Ohio. And what is this normal Ohio family going to think of this weird Addams family? Mr. Elice said they weren’t thinking of the Addams Family as weird people who drink blood out of a cup or something like that; they wrote them thinking that these are Upper West Side New York Jewish people. Go figure.
I had a personal experience that illustrates this point of what’s weird and what’s normal. A certain friend of mine thought I was a goth mean girl when she first met me. It wasn’t until she got to know me that she changed her mind and we’ve been super close ever since. First impressions can be deceiving.
I also got to interview Benj Pasek who wrote the songs for Dear Evan Hansen and LaLaLand. He said being Jewish means you’re part of a minority and sometimes an outsider in culture. When you’re not a part of the majority, it sharpens your perspective and ability to analyze. You remove yourself and observe, watch interactions and think differently, which makes you a good storyteller. He believes the arts can create dialogues and repair the world.
I agree with him. I believe that through the arts you can share the causes and effects of situations in a way that you can’t always do through other mediums.
I was curious why a Jewish composer would write the show A Christmas Story and he said he is part of a long line of Jewish artists who have created Christmas stories or songs like Irving Berlin who wrote White Christmas and Alan Menken who wrote A Christmas Carol. He loved being able to participate in Christmas for the first time as part of that project. What Christmas is about is really how universal family is, and the messiness of how we try to do our best to come together and create experiences and traditions. That is a universal experience for all, whether it’s about Christmas or any other family gathering.
Finally, I had the great experience of being able to interview Adam Pascal, the first Roger, one of the main characters in Rent. When I saw Rent, the first thing that hit me was the community of friends among these characters. How your friends become your family. Those are important values to me; friendship and family. All of these people were there for each other even when things were at their worst. He said that he felt the social messages have to do with the acceptance of people who are suffering, and the generosity of love and friendship and spirit. He hopes that the show changes the audience for the better and that they walk away having had an emotional experience of some kind. Music has a way of connecting people on a level that goes beyond anything else. Jonathan Larson’s experience growing up Jewish affected everything about his worldview and the way he looked at music. It was an integral part of who he was and an inspiration for his creativity.
Through these and other shows, I realize that the connections are all universal: inclusion or exclusion, persecution, feeling like an outsider, friendship, family and community. I hope someday to add to the canvas, whether it be as an actor, a casting director, producer, dancer, choreographer, or any other role in the musical theater field. I feel that these messages are important for people to understand and I’m glad I’m part of a community that has contributed a lot to the arts.
In conclusion, I learned that musical theater is not just about song and dance and getting a poster signed, but It can be an extremely powerful tool in coming to a greater understanding about ourselves. Knowing the Jewish backgrounds of these writers helped me to connect even further. I have come to understand the important idea that musical theater can go a long way in educating people, changing their points of view and deepening empathy. I can’t wait to go to more shows see the impact of what these, and all the new Jewish writers and composers come up with next.
In the spirit of Jonathan Larson, who I originally wanted to write about, and his connection to friends, family and music, I’d like my friends and family to join in as my first music teacher, Aaron, who came all the way from California, comes up to the piano to lead us in “Seasons of Love” from Rent.