If one didn’t know the melodies, the connections would not necessarily be made.
“Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” airing on PBS’ “Great Performances” at 9:30 p.m. today, shows the very strong link between Jewish music and the sometimes mournful, sometimes joyful tunes that have dominated the Great White Way from the beginning.
“This isn’t really a Jewish story,” says the filmmaker, Michael Kantor, who also made the Emmy-winning “Broadway: The American Musical.” “It is Jewish in the sense that [it] is exploring this phenomenon of this handful of writers, but they created an American art form. Only a few art forms are considered uniquely American - jazz, abstract expressionism and the Broadway musical. So anything that deals with how these art forms came about deals with who we are as a nation.
“The Broadway musical is an amalgam of lots of different things,” Kantor continues. “It is also incredibly entertaining. These numbers and songs and jokes don’t end up on TV. They play out to millions of people on Broadway in each of the theaters and are cherished by the audience but almost never on TV, so this is an opportunity for someone who loves Broadway and is located in Kansas or New Mexico or wherever to enjoy it in a way that they can’t otherwise.”
Narrated by Broadway vet Joel Grey, the 90-minute documentary stresses the intrinsic link between Broadway and the Jewish liturgy.
In “Porgy and Bess,” one of the best-known numbers, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” is the exact melody of the Barchu, the prayer said before and after the Torah is read. Given that the melody of that prayer is the same the world over, Jews recognize it, though gentiles would not.
Even Kantor, who knows Broadway history and its links to Jewish music, was surprised by the similarities when Maury Yeston, Tony-Award winning composer of “Nine” and “Titanic,” played “God Bless America” on the piano and melodies from the Jewish liturgy.
Irving Berlin, who wrote “God Bless America,” “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” and adored his adopted homeland, came to the United States when he was 5. His earliest memory was hiding in a ditch during a pogrom as Cossacks burned his village, killing Jews. Berlin’s father was a cantor.
Though Berlin, Ira and George Gershwin, and so many other lyricists and composers of Broadway musicals were Jewish, not everyone was. Cole Porter is the first everyone cites.
And someone who was constantly mistaken for being Jewish – Ethel Merman – was not. The film’s funniest moment revolves around the brassy singer who was the queen of Broadway in the 1940s and ’50s. Jule Styne, who composed the music for “Gypsy” with Stephen Sondheim as the lyricist, invited Merman to his home for a Seder, the traditional meal held at Passover.
Merman balked, saying she would not know what to do and didn’t know if she would like the food.
Styne insisted and told her not to worry about the food; he was serving capon. So the evening comes, and Merman arrives, subdued (for her) in a black dress, her hair less crazy than usual.
Seated at the place of honor as the dinner of many courses begins, she opens her purse and takes out a ham sandwich.
Various Broadway legends including Sondheim, Harold Prince - who’s won the most Tony Awards at 21 – and Mel Brooks talk about their cherished link to theater.
“The Broadway musical distinguishes us from every other musical in the world,” says Brooks, whose “The Producers” set a record for number of Tony Awards won by a musical. “It’s the closest thing America has to an enduring legacy.”