I played hooky one recent afternoon and watched an exceptional PBS documentary called Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy. Besides the incredible talent that the composers and lyricists of the 20th century had in common, they also, nearly every single one of them, were Jewish. As mind-boggling as that is, one of commentators, Josh Kun, an associate professor at USC's Annenberg School, stated that when closely examined, the culture of the late 20th century in this country is arguably a Jewish culture, based on the contributions of Jewish authors, filmmakers, and those Broadway geniuses. To think of the amount of creative energy and output by the Jews in the United States is awe-inspiring. These men (and they were ALL men) gave the United States musical theater unlike any it had never seen before.
I'm not an observant Jew in any sense. My children were Bar and Bat Mitvahed, and my husband and I had a rabbi marry us at our interfaith ceremony. Finding a rabbi to do so at the time wasn't as easy as it is now, 24 years later. But as far as my observation of the laws of Kashrut, or keeping the sabbath holy, that doesn't happen in my home. And yet... when the participants in the documentary continually pointed out the similarity -- to the point of plagiarism, in some cases -- of the songs of the mid-twentieth century Broadway stage and the prayers said in synagogue, tears came to my eyes. For as little time as I've spent in temple, the chants and tunes of the prayers are deeply ingrained in me, nearly as much as the scores to countless musicals.
For example, the opening to the Porgy and Bess song It Ain't Necessarily So has the same exact chords and notes as the blessing over the Torah.
Revisiting the musicals and listening to the genius composers like Stephen Schwartz, Steven Sondheim and more discussing the evolution of their artform made me wonder... where are the new great musicals? While visiting New York City this past April, there wasn't one show that I was dying to see -- not.one.show. This had never happened to me before. They were mostly either revivals, or children's shows, or, even better, revivials of children's shows. I don't need to see Annie, or The Lion King, or even Cinderella (which I loved when I was a little girl) ever again. Where is the new A Chorus Line, or Into the Woods? Why not something fabulous and emotional like Fiddler on the Roof? Or something thought-provoking and current like Rent? Where is the score that you love so much you play it over and over? The last time that happened to me it was Wicked, and that was in 2003.
Here is a list of the most popular shows on Broadway today (courtesy Broadway.com):
I realize that the producers and backers of Broadway shows need to make money. I understand that taking your children to see a show is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon -- I did it all the time when I was growing up, and took my kids to theater, too. But other than The Book of Mormon -- which I loved, by the way -- which of these shows is current in its topic, challenging in its story? I mean, Rock of Ages? Really?
I don't know if there will ever be another George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or, lost more recently, the incredible Marvin Hamlisch. Maybe Broadway is going the way of so much other entertainment, leaving the heart of things out of it just to get to the glitz and glamour or, conversely, getting to the dirt with stark reality. I do know that I'll continue to return to the scores of 50-70 year old shows for lush, beautiful music and vocals, choosing Oklahoma over Phantom of the Opera any day of the week.
And the next time I'm in temple, I'll think of Porgy and Bess. That George Gershwin was brilliant.