Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

“You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews,” jokes the lyric from Spamalot by Monty Python’s Eric Idle in the opening of this highly entertaining documentary. From Rodgers and Hammerstein to the Gershwins to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim the roll call of composers who defined a particular American cultural genre known as musical theater might read like a synagogue board of directors list. Except for Cole Porter, this film asserts, it was a Jewish club. Drawing on the theatrical roots of Yiddish theater and the musical roots of klezmer, the early 20th century was fertile ground for a burgeoning art form that explored stories of outsiders finding their way in. Not specifically Jewish, these stories nevertheless paralleled the American Jewish experience. And while the musical style was not specifically Jewish either, immigrant and first generation American composers drew from their Jewish roots, even transforming phrases from liturgical music into great American song. Irving Berlin, an immigrant whose first memory was hiding in a ditch during a pogrom, wrote hit after hit, including “God Bless America,” making an indelible imprint on American popular music. Broadway offered Jewish songwriters a chance to make it in America, and they, in turn, fashioned an America of their own.
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