Judge P.S. Colbert wants to know: What, no Fosse?!
"If I like their race, how can that be racist?"—Jerry Seinfeld
I'm hereby outing myself as a raving heterosexual Musical Theater fan, with particular adoration for the legendary Semitic composers and lyricists of the Great White Way.
Jerome Kern. Irving Berlin. Jerry Herman. Stephen Schwartz. Sondheim. Bernstein. Lerner and Lowe. Comden and Green. Kander and Ebb. George and Ira Gershwin. Rodgers and Hart. And Hammerstein. The list goes on.
Though politely giving honorary mention to George M. Cohan and Cole Porter, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy opens with narrator Joel Grey getting right to its point:
"Before the Broadway musical established its home near Times Square early in the twentieth century, there was a lively theater that thrived downtown on the lower east side, where Yiddishkeit—meaning "all things Jewish"—predominated."
Cue San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (Grandson of Yiddish theater pioneers Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky) at the piano, demonstrating the direct lineage from an old Yiddish standard to Gershwin's "Swanee." Likewise, theater critic Stuart J. Hecht points out that the legendary clarinet line that begins "Rhapsody in Blue" is played Klezmer style, and poet David Lehman intones the Hebrew prayer response that forms the melody of "It Ain't Necessarily So."
And we're off, with writer-producer-director Michael Kantor (Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business Of America) conducting a short but sweet eighty-four minute guided tour through more than a century of classic show tunes, and the people responsible for them. What's more, the documentary provides a treasure trove of great antecdotal stories and performance clips, which are truncated, but just long enough to inspire viewers to do some further investigation on their own.
This last bit is important; don't confuse Kantor's shrewd, glib script with a definitive tome on the subject. In fact, there's a bit of historical revision involved:
"In 1964, the unimaginable happened. A musical, devoted entirely to a Jewish story came to Broadway."
Cue the "Fiddler On The Roof" section, complete with amazing (though badly aged) television footage of creators Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, discussing the creative process they underwent to create this landmark show. Very dramatic, right?
There's just one thing. Jerry Herman's Broadway debut, "Milk And Honey," made its bow almost three years earlier. This musical tale of multi-generational lovers (set in present-day Jerusalem), was hardly a deep, dark secret. On the contrary, it wound up running for 543 performances, racking up five Tony award nominations, and scoring a pop hit—named "Shalom," no less!
My question is: why? I understand that time limits make it impossible to mention everything, but what good is a historical narrative that omits important facts in the name of convenience? Sure, "Milk And Honey" has faded from collective memory in the intervening years, but considering its subject matter, wouldn't this particular biography be the perfect place to resurrect its memory? Oddly, the show is name-checked several times during the program, once by Herman himself, who appears repeatedly throughoutâ€¦go figure.
As with any program that uses vintage clips for source material, the visual and audio quality will vary at times, and this Acorn DVD release is no exception. That said, the contemporary material is state of the art, while the archival material is amazingly well-preserved, and should pose no threat to your enjoyment of this anamorphic widescreen presentation with 5.1. surround sound. English subtitles are optional. The show must go on (to coin a phrase), and go on it does, extending to a second disc, containing three hours of additional interviews and performance clips. Still hungry for more? There's also a CD-rom biography of Joel Grey, and the set comes with an informative, sixteen page booklet, illustrated with photos.
As a proud Irishman, I could certainly take issue with the passing over of Broadway musical architect George M. Cohan ("Give My Regards To Broadway," anyone?), but I won't, for two reasons: first, the man's legend speaks for itself (if you haven't yet, do yourself a favor and check out James Cagney's portrayal of him in the stellar biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy).
But more importantly, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy provides a wonderful counter-balance to the historical view of twentieth century Jews, primarily as victims of the Holocaust, and country club restrictions. Watching the likes of Ethel Merman, Al Jolson, Zero Mostel, Kristin Chenowith, Idina Menzel, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick (half-Jewish, on his mother's side) and of course, La Streisand, strutting their stuff across the boards demonstrates the triumphant survival of a great and talented people more than mere words ever could.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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