Is Broadway ready for dancing girls in the Warsaw ghetto? Can an American musical high kick through the darkest moments of Jewish history and still avoid giving offense, or worse, falling into kitsch?
“The People in the Picture,” a new musical playing at the Roundabout theater until June 19, raises this question, treading where even the now sainted creators of “Fiddler on the Roof” dared not go. Indeed, in his commentary for the anniversary of “Fiddler on the Roof’s” original Broadway cast recording, Sheldon Harnick tells how “Fiddler” almost had dancing girls in a big second act production number. Jerome Robbins even had it choreographed before deciding that the juxtaposition of dancing girls to communal expulsion just wasn’t the show they were writing.
Though the dancing girls in the ghetto are only a brief moment in “The People in the Picture,” as an artistic choice it stands for a show which is neither very funny nor very serious, and ends up falling, unfortunately, on the wrong side of self-parody.
“The Normal Heart,” just revived on Broadway, is less a play than a sensory experience, likely to leave audiences feeling drained, exhilarated and perhaps a bit guilty.
That the play is powerful is, given its subject matter, to be expected. That it is nuanced as well is a tribute to playwright Larry Kramer, a man hardly noted for delicacy.
Originally produced in 1985 by the Public Theater, “The Normal Heart” is set in the early 1980s, and closely chronicles Kramer’s own experiences as HIV/AIDS began to spread in the gay community. The disease was almost completely ignored, not only by the straight world, but also by those most likely to be affected by it.
Jerome A. Chanes goes to see The Living Theatre’s production of “Korach.”
Curt Schleier tells the story of three Broadway producers.
Jay Michaelson questions whether mysticism is real.
Philologos is possessed.
Laurence Zuckerman looks back at the life of Judah L. Magnes, one of 20th-century Jewry’s most important — and most overlooked — leaders.
The once-seedy Tel Aviv suburb of Holon has become a major tourist destination thanks to its arts scene.
The Milken Archive of Jewish Music has launched a virtual museum.
A Jewish big band in New York’s East Village is attracting jazz talent from all over the Tri-State Region.
British Jewish filmmaker Mike Leigh has canceled a trip to Israel on account of the loyalty oath.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, in contrast, is celebrating its 70th anniversary in Tel Aviv.
James Logan’s new play “Red” about abstract painter Mark Rothko, which has just opened on Broadway, begins with an unobstructed view of Alfred Molina’s back. Molina as Rothko, staring at his own painting, begins to pontificate — and this, in essence, is the central image of the play: a self-absorbed artist/genius who turns away from the world as his newly hired assistant witnesses his rants and rages, fears and memories.
The play is full of wonderful, if highfalutin’, art criticism, literary discourse and philosophy. I was actually quite surprised that this sort of thing could fly on Broadway. Rothko’s assistant Ken (Eddie Redmayne), recently introduced to Nietzsche, also begins to pontificate, calling Rothko “Appolonian, Rabbinical,” as opposed to Jackson Pollock who was purely “Dionysian.” Of course, his simplistic boxing of artistic personalities into newly discovered archetypes ends up being squashed and demolished by his mentor.
The Ohio-born Jewish entertainer Michael Feinstein opened on Broadway on March 18 in a musical review, “All About Me,” co-starring the Australian comedian Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna Everage). As Feinstein explains in his 1995 memoir, “Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme” (Hyperion), he has devoted his life to preserving and celebrating works by Tin Pan Alley composers, a great many of whom were Jewish. Feinstein’s reedy voice may be wispy, but his piano playing is charmingly fluent, when not overelaborate, in songs famous, forgotten and almost lost to posterity.
Some Jewish Broadway tunesmiths were gifted with longevity, like Irving Berlin, the Methuselah of Tin Pan Alley, who was still around to celebrate his centenary in 1988. By contrast, the much-beloved Frank Loesser — who would have turned 100 on June 29 — died over 40 years ago at the premature age of only 59.
Still, Loesser’s work lives on, and survives even longstanding grievous attempts by tone-deaf Hollywood actors to perform his songs. On March 19, Opera Omaha will give Nebraskans the chance to sing along with the film “Guys and Dolls,” while later April 16 and 18 programs offer a Cornhusker State tribute to Loesser by television soap opera actor and singer Ron Raines. On May 3, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., will host two other gala centenary events: a new stage work based on Loesser’s unpublished songs about animals, and a separate interview-performance program featuring Loesser’s widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser. Most significantly, a revival of Loesser’s hit musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” will run at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House from September 24 to November 28. More than grab-bags of songs or ill-advised celebrity attempts to sing, to hear Loesser’s music and words in the dramatic context for which they were originally intended is an undiluted joy.
Singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin, perhaps best known for her YouTube hits “Rosh Hashanah Girl” and “20 Things to Do with Matzah,” has the Internet to thank for her latest gig: composer and lyricist for the Broadway-bound “Sleepless in Seattle: The Musical,” set to debut February 2011.
The show’s producer, David Shor, saw her YouTube postings and tracked down the diminutive, dreadlocked musician on her Facebook page, sending her an e-mail in September asking her to lend her musical chops to the production. She was asked to write a couple of songs as an audition.
After getting over the shock, Citrin contacted her good friend, fellow Jewish musician Josh Nelson, to co-write the audition lyrics. They sent Shor two songs, and “the next thing I know we’re flying to Santa Barbara to meet the team,” Citrin said.
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