The Broadway playbill for Soul Doctor, based on the life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, quotes his daughter Neshama, as the story source: "He was my best friend, and I,” she adds, “was his best friend." Yet as the intimacies of her father's life are disclosed, especially his soulful relationship with Nina Simone, the courage of his soul daughter is evident. She revealed the depths of her father's struggle, and, in all probability her own, to David S. Wise who wrote the book for the musical.
While Wise himself is an impresario with productions like Rent, 42nd Street, The Blues Brothers, and The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber to his credit, his Jewish background is not so well known. A former Yeshiva student and young playwright, after writing for Saturday Night Live, he went on to study Talmudic jurisprudence at the Rabbinical College of Canada, where he received his rabbinical ordination at age 19 from the Chief rabbi of Montreal. He also authored a multi-volume codification of Talmudic law used as curriculum in many rabbinical academies. So in many ways, Wise is just as much of a prodigy as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Imagine these late night talks between daughter Neshama and prodigy Wise about the rabbi's contribution to Jewish liturgy, about Talmud, and even about the new Jewish music that was born of Shlomo’ s contributions. Perhaps they spoke in Yeshivish, defined by the linguist Philologos as, "a new Judeo-English . . . created in America" perhaps like the African-American Ebonics, by those who immerse themselves in Talmudic studies in Hebrew.
According to this production, it was African American music in the form of Simone's mix of classical, pop, gospel, and the blues that changed Carlebach irreversibly. The electricity of the plot really begins with the scene between Simone and Carlebach, who, at this point, is broken and rejected for his insistence on separate seating for men and women during his outreach to college students. He wanders into a nightclub, still assiduously distancing himself from any woman in the place until Simone truly puts a spell on him.
Carlebach says that she saved him with her music. Inspired by her, he begins to improvise with the Hebrew phrase "ci va mo'ed," translated as "The Time Has Come." A musical duet, as well as a life long friendship, emerges. She invites him to visit him mother's church to introduce the song, which develops into soul-shaking foot-stomping gospel. Afterwards, they continue to meet at significant junctures in their lives.
The rest is, as the idiom goes, history with Carlebach unshackling himself from his father's strict Judaism and Holocaust bitterness. By the end of his life, he has established his own contribution to Judaism, much to the consternation of his elders.
Carlebach’ s main story is well known, but the many incidents supplied by his daughter are not. So the plot develops as more of a docudrama, or if I may coin a word, a documusical with heart and much schmaltz. Many reviewers including the New York Times and the New Yorker have criticized Soul Doctor for its soap opera qualities. But really, this is a musical and it's the "Singing Rabbi" as he was dubbed. He always spoke with schmaltz and lines right out of soap operas.
"Gevalt," he kept exclaiming with every new insight and parable or story he brought to his talks, strumming all the while. "Mamisch," (Yiddish for "really!") was his favorite punctuation, as if he was discovering the Garden of Eden itself with each Biblical quote, or insight that he set to music. So what should we expect of Soul Doctor? Shakespearean sub-plots? The broken dialogue of David Mamet? The ennui of Sartre? The absurd boredom of Samuel Beckett? Give me a break! Soul Doctor demonstrates the life of the ultimate heart that Carlebach wore on his sleeve. It certainly got him into trouble as was demonstrated in the timeline of his life. If the Catskills were still in business it would run forever, at one hotel or another. So expect no Shakespearean profundity, just the classical letting go of the usual dogma that most religions rigidly become, which in turn invite revival and new sparks.
Carlebach tends to the beggars, and constantly empties his pockets into their hats. This generosity elicits one beggar to give him her guitar and teach him his first basic chords; these would accompany him throughout his teaching ministry. The writers and the actors did just that to the audience; they tended to the need of folks who come to the theater to be lifted through the catharsis of "pity and terror" as Aristotle described. But to what end? Aristotle argued that the main character have a "tragic flaw" to teach us to live morally. The good rabbi, for all his flaws and unfortunate repercussions, tried to do just that. Which leads to his universal appeal, and his own acknowledgement of his own flaws.
"My wife Neilah," he would declare, "she's my last prayer." Her name is the name of the last plea on Yom Kippur before the sun sets begging Divinity to save one's soul to live again another year. It was from this struggle that he ministered to others. This was not so much in the lyrics or even the music, but in his delivery. It was this common pain, wherein Simone and he connected. It was this connection, the knowledge of his own brokenness, which he shared with his listeners and his followers, that became the source of his appeal and popularity. He was more than a songster who introduced new melodies to old words. He was a Jewish soul revolution that began quietly and then fostered and renewed the religion.
This is why the first scene doesn't work. Indeed Carlebach did enter from the back of any synagogue, but without the hoopla of a dance entourage jumping with skillful somersaults. It was acappella, maybe humming a story, a story like the Holy Hunchback, the disciple of the Piacezna Rebbe, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, who once told his hundreds of followers that the holiest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. Carlebach would hum the details of the story, while touching every face that he could. He would walk slow and say, “I've been waiting my whole life to meet you, my holy brother/my holy sister.” And when he touched your face with this exclamation, you believed it! That’s the entrance the Singing Rabbi deserves, with the Holy Beggars really begging and followed by the beggar strumming on the guitar that she gave him. This would really tie into the recording studio scene that features his difficulty with modern musical presentations.
Watch the beginning of this video to see Carlebach miss the cue in person: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6uOlDwvijM
The Holy Beggars are impressive in their choreography, but Carlebach called every beggar holy, and he emptied his pockets for them in the streets, because he believed that one of them could actually be the prophet Elijah coming back to serve the world. That reference is missing and it could also be included in the opening scene. The hoopla in the present opening introduces an orgiastic energy with no foreplay.
Eric Anderson succeeds in channeling Carlebach’ s spirit and struggle, by ranging from a shy twinkle during many touching moments to full frontal Shlomo dancing with abandon.
Amber Iman’s Nina Simone is a rare combination of class and guts with a great voice. Zarah Mahler’s range of voice and mood is the highlight of her solo, “I was a Sparrow” in the second act.
The choreography by Benoi-Swan Pouffer as danced by the Holy Beggars adapts to the church and synagogue alike. Watch the feet of the gal with the mike as she follows Anderson around the stage during the recording studio scene. That scene is worth the price of admission alone.
Bring the show to Boston please!
This Youtube video demonstrates Carlebach's story telling approach: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1qMGsJSUtghttp:
Neshama Carlebach can be heard singing Shlomo Carlebach’ s "Return Again," a melody so widely spread, that many people did not know he wrote it. http://www.neshamacarlebach.com/home.htm