As Sir Robin carols merrily to King Arthur in Monty Python's Spamalot, "In any great adventure, if you don't want to lose...you won't succeed on Broadway if you don't have any Jews."
Eric Idle's cheeky lyric, which unfailingly generated knowing guffaws from Broadway audiences, proves to be more than a little grounded in truth, as Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy convincingly attests.
This new 90-minute documentary by Michael Kantor, creator of the Emmy-winning series,Broadway: The American Musical, airs on Great Performances Tuesday, January 1 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.)
Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, one of America's most prolific and respected public media providers. For 50 years, THIRTEEN has been making the most of the rich resources and passionate people of New York and the world, reaching millions of people with on-air and online programming that celebrates arts and culture, offers insightful commentary on the news of the day, explores the worlds of science and nature, and invites students of all ages to have fun while learning.
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 includingIrving 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.
Dynamic footage includes performances by stars such as David Hyde Pierce (Spamalot), Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara (Nice Work if You Can Get It), Zero Mostel (Fiddler on the Roof), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town), Nathan Lane (The Producers), Al Jolson (Sinbad), Fanny Brice(The Great Ziegfeld), Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Joel Grey (Cabaret), Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie),Danny Kaye (Lady in the Dark), Ethel Merman (Gypsy), and Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel(Wicked).
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.