When author Abigail Pogrebin was 16, she landed a role in the original cast of a Stephen Sondheim Broadway show, "Merrily We Roll Along," which she described in Showstopper, a bestselling Kindle single. A rare flop in Sondheim's otherwise brilliant career, Pogrebin's time on Broadway was short-lived. "Merrily" soon closed. Although Pogrebin went on to Yale and a successful career, first as a broadcast journalist, and later in print, her love of musical theatre lives on.
In a cosmic nod to her fascination with the stage, producer Daryl Roth has transformed Pogrebin's first book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (Doubleday/Broadway, 2005), into an off-Broadway show. Like the book -- an unexpected page-turner about Jewish identity, heritage, interests and memories -- the show keeps audiences wondering what exactly will be shared next and by whom. Actors portraying prominent personalities, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fran Drescher, Tony Kushner, Leonard Nimoy, Joan Rivers, Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Sorkin among others, reveal intimate thoughts and experiences about being Jewish, from experiences of antisemitism to others of pure joy.
No stranger to these topics myself, Pogrebin and met in 2012 at Limmud NY, where I plan to present again in February. At that time, we attended each other's sessions about our respective books. And on a recent morning at Zabar's upstairs cafe on New York's Upper West Side, we sat down for tea, continuing a chat that extending to email.
Lisa Alcalay Klug: After your Sondheim experience, how does it feel to be involved in a major musical theatre production again?
Abby Pogrebin: I spent my childhood listening to Broadway show albums and literally memorized almost every lyric, so it feels somehow like coming full circle, to watch a show come to life based on my first book. Some of these composers were my childhood heroes - Sheldon Harnick, who wrote "Fiddler on the Roof," Marvin Hamlisch who wrote "A Chorus Line," Richard Maltby and David Shire, who wrote "Baby." Some of the "Stars of David" songwriters are my newer musical crushes, such as Duncan Sheik, Tom Kitt and Jeanine Tesori. So this experience has been both a throwback and also an entirely new and nutty adventure.
Lisa: What are the challenges of taking a work of journalism and transforming it into a theatrical production?
Abby: What I learned quickly is that what works on the page doesn't necessarily translate to the stage. An interview can definitely spark a song, but the lyric has to be wholly new and work on its own merits. We all felt strongly that the songs should feel as fresh and truthful as the interviews, but we also had to meet the usual standards of what makes a song effective, stirring, entertaining. That took a lot of trial and error. Some songwriters had an easier time than others and I could see all the hurdles of trying to capture a character in one song, where usually songwriters have an entire musical arc to build a portrait.
Lisa: How would you describe your role and involvement in the day to day workings of the show?
Abby: I was what I would call, "the keeper of the book," meaning that I knew the raw material best, having done the original interviews, and so the songwriters could turn to me when it was helpful to suggest nuggets which might trigger a song or a specific lyric. Even though I met with these "celebrities" a decade ago, I still remember acutely which moments in each conversation stuck with me the most. So sometimes I could point the composers and lyricists toward those moments.
Lisa: What are your hopes for the musical?
Abby: I would love the show to travel around the country so that people could engage these musical stories and see which spoke to them the most.
Lisa: What are some of the challenges and joys of the show?
Abby: The joys of the show are listening to my favorite songs take shape, watching first-rate actors bring these stories to life in a way I never anticipated, and getting the chance to work with a producer as high-caliber and supportive as Daryl Roth. The challenges are really about letting go. This show is really the vision of the director, Gordon Greenberg, and it has to be. Every author, I'd expect, feels protective of the original material sometimes has too many opinions! I'm a pushy Jewish New Yorker and sometimes I had to take a back seat and let the process happen without me.
Hear more from Abby and "Stars of David," playing at the DR2 Theatre through December 15, in this podcast.