Fans of musical theatre will what to watch tonight this marvelous repeat telecast: The 90-minute documentary by Michael Kantor, "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy" – narrated by Joel Grey — explores the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical.
Featuring interviews and conversations with some of the greatest composers and writers of the Broadway stage, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy showcases the work of some of the nation’s pre-eminent creators of musical theatre including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Kurt Weill, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jule Styne and many others.
Though these remarkable songwriters were purveyors of what we think of today as the Broadway sound, the documentary demonstrates how there were echoes of Jewish strains in many of the works. From “Yiddishkeit” (all things Jewish) on the stages of the Lower East Side at the turn of the century to a wide range of shows including Porgy and Bess, West Side Story and Cabaret, the film explores how Jewish music and ethos informs many of America’s favorite musicals.
The film is the first of its kind to examine the phenomenon that, over the 50-year period of its development, the songs of the Broadway musical were created almost exclusively by Jewish Americans. These are the popular songs that our nation took to war, sang to their children at bedtime, and whistled while waiting for the bus; taken in total they comprise the vast majority of what is now commonly referred to as “The American Songbook.”
As historian Phil Furia cites as just one vivid example, Irving Berlin had so assimilated that he went on to “write the most popular Christmas song, ‘White Christmas’…and the most popular Easter song, ‘Easter Parade.’ It’s the Horatio Alger story told in Yiddish.” Berlin’s “God Bless America” became so popular, it nearly replaced the National Anthem.
While Jewish Americans certainly abounded in other areas of the musical theater, their predominance in the area of songwriting was nearly complete, with only the Episcopalian Cole Porter represented as a major figure in the pantheon of America’s greatest composers of Broadway songs. And even Porter, after three Broadway flops, finally ascertained the surefire way to success: “I’m going to write Jewish tunes.”
Rare clips include Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America,” rehearsals for Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, and original South Pacific star William Tabbert singing “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” with Richard Rodgers at the piano.