Even if you’re not a theater nerd, Warren Hoffman’s “The Great White Way” (Rutgers University Press) makes a fascinating read. The book’s subtitle, “Race and the Broadway Musical,” only hints at its breadth, and the depth of Hoffman’s laser-sharp analysis of an all-American art form. Billed as “the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years,” “The Great White Way” also delves into Jewish contributions to the musical stage, including a kind of myopia around race and ethnicity as Jews fought to fit in themselves. Hoffman, a playwright himself, works by day as associate director of community programming at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He spoke to the Forward from his Philly office.
MIchael Kaminer: It’s hard to believe that no one’s explored a topic this ripe. Why is that?
Warren Hoffman: Until recently, musical theater hasn’t been given real attention. People looked at it as a fluffy art form with nothing to say of real significance. “Oh race, that’s too serious, how can a musical be about that?” But it’s all over the place. Because you don’t see African Americans or Asian Americans when you look at show like “Hello Dolly,” people ask how it can be a show about race — there are no people of color present. But that’s almost a misstep. People have missed some of what’s actually in front of their faces.
Peter Greenberg has what may be the world’s best job. He is travel editor of CBS News, a post he’s held for the last 13 years. Before that he spent a combined 21 years in the same job at the Today Show and Good Morning America. He also has a syndicated radio show on travel and, for PBS, hosts “Royal Tour” specials, where Greenberg visits a nation with an unusual tour guide — the nation’s leader.
On previous Royal Tours Greenberg, 64, visited Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Jamaica and New Zealand. His latest special, which premiered March 6, was to Israel, where his escort was Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister proves a gracious host and takes Greenberg and his large crew to a host of traditional tourist sites — the Dead Sea, Masada, Caesarea — as well as providing personal insights about his experiences in the military.
Greenberg spoke to the Forward about his job, the show, and the secrets of a frequent flyer.
Curt Schleier: How much traveling do you do?
Peter Greenberg: I travel almost 400,000 miles a year. Today is the only day this week I’m not an airplane.
Toronto isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of Pharrell Williams, the peripatetic Grammy winner and Daft Punk collaborator.
But this spring, Williams’ name adorns the marquee of the city’s Design Exchange museum. And it’s Shauna Levy, the museum’s new director, who’s responsible for the coup.
“THIS IS NOT A TOY,” a blockbuster show of toys as art, includes work from Williams’ personal collection, and from artists around the world who blur art, design and street culture. The exhibit, whose centerpiece is a $3 million, diamond-encrusted sculpture by Japan’s Takashi Murakami, is Levy’s latest swipe at clearing the dust from what had been an esoteric gallery with a wonky reputation; last year, she shook up the staid DX with a retrospective of French shoe guru Christian Louboutin.
A Montreal native, Levy founded Toronto’s popular Interior Design Show, which she sold to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties in 2012. “I started to feel restless for a great big new challenge,” she told the Forward from Toronto. “Days after I acknowledged this to myself, I was contacted by a recruiter on behalf of the Design Exchange board. There is something to be said for putting it out there.”
Michael Kaminer: You’ve scored big with Pharrell Williams as guest curator for “This Is Not a Toy.” How did you get him?
Washington Hebrew Congregation Flag-Raising, April 8, 1917. // JHSGW Collections.
Zachary Levine may have just landed a curator’s dream job: Conceiving a museum from scratch. The former associate curator at Yeshiva University Museum in Manhattan, Levine this month joined a team that will expand the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington from a smallish non-profit to a major museum dedicated to Washington, D.C.’s Jews. The museum will occupy part of Downtown Crossing, a new neighborhood slated to get built over a sunken highway in an undeveloped part of Washington.
After decamping from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn last month, he and his wife Allison Farber — program director of a new master’s program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts at The George Washington University — have settled in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of D.C. with their 14-month-old, Misha.
Before he joined YUM in 2010, Levine was a PhD candidate at New York University studying Jewish aid to Eastern Europe during the Cold War. For his master’s degree in history from Central European University in Budapest, his thesis covered clandestine Jewish social organizations in Communist Hungary. The Forward caught up with Levine from his D.C. office.
Synagogue being moved in 1969.// JHSGW Collections.
Michael Kaminer: What is the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, and what will it become over the next few years?
Photographing graceful male dancers in New York may seem a long way from taking pictures of gruff IDF soldiers in Israel. But for 27-year-old lensman Nir Arieli, the progression makes perfect sense. “I always had an agenda to find that gentleness and sensitivity hidden in the soldiers I photographed,” he says, “which is something I do in my current work.” For his new project, “Inframen,” on view at Daniel Cooney Fine Arts in Chelsea through March 8, Arieli used an infrared technique that emphasizes imperfections like scars, stretch marks, and sun damage on dancers; the effect’s beautiful and a bit spectral.
Born in Tel Aviv, Arieli served as a photographer for Bamachane, the official magazine of the Israeli army; after emigrating, he earned a BFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His career’s steamrolled since then, with clients including the Juilliard School, the Alvin Ailey school, and his alma mater, The School of Visual Arts, among others.
Michael Kaminer: You launched your career as military photographer for the IDF magazine Bamachane. How did that experience influence your work now?
At age 19, Graham Gouldman scored his first U.K. top-10 hit with “For Your Love,” the ageless tune first recorded by the Yardbirds. He went on to write smash songs for the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Jeff Beck, and the Hollies before forming the band 10cc — a hit factory in itself — in 1972.
This month, Gouldman added another distinction to a stellar resume. He’s one of four tunesmiths who’ll get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame at a ceremony this June in New York. The Kinks’ Ray Davies, “Midnight Train to Georgia” writer Jim Weatherly, and Elvis Presley collaborator Mark James will also be honored.
Born in Manchester, England, Gouldman started playing guitar at age 11 after a cousin returned from Spain with a cheap acoustic guitar. “As soon as I held it, I was gone,” his bio says. Gouldman left school “as soon as was legally possible,” joining a band called the Whirlwinds. After a stint with another band, the Mockingbirds, music manager Harvey Lisberg hired him to write songs for one of the biggest acts to break out of Manchester — Herman’s Hermits.
These days, Gouldman continues to tour tirelessly with 10cc; in 2012, he released “Love and Work” (Rosala Records), a solo album. The Forward caught up with Gouldman by email.
Michael Kaminer: What does the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame honor mean to you?
Writer and showrunner Jason Katims is best known for his rich and realistic characters, and for a long list of television credits including “My So-Called Life,” “Boston Public,” and “Friday Night Lights,” which earned him a Primetime Emmy Award. On February 22 he premieres a new TV series on NBC called “About a Boy” and on February 27 his long running hit show “Parenthood” returns for a new season. And Katims also just finished a stint as keynote speaker at the Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans. The Arty Semite caught up with the assiduous Katims for an exclusive interview.
Dorri Olds: What is your new show about?
Jason Katims: “About a Boy” is based on the book and the movie. It’s about this guy Will [David Walton] who’s in his early thirties but hasn’t grown up. He’s a womanizer, plays video games, and loves his single life. Then Will meets this quirky kid, Marcus, a 12-year-old boy who looks up to Will like a father, like a god, like an everything.
What is Minnie Driver’s role?
Max’s single mom Fiona, who is kind of a hippie but also overprotective and controlling. We’re almost halfway done shooting the first season. It’s been fun already because during the pilot episode, where the three first meet, the adults are both loggerheads. As Marcus [Benjamin Stockham] works his way into Will’s life, the adults develop a sort of mutual respect. It’s incredibly charming.
What is the key to creating so many shows that have a cult-like following?
This will definitely be composer Jason Robert Brown’s year.
A musical version of Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” (music, lyrics and orchestration by Jason Robert Brown) opens February 20 on Broadway.
“Honeymoon in Vegas” (music, lyrics, dance and vocal orchestration by Jason Robert Brown), which received rapturous reviews during its debut at the Paper Mill Theater in New Jersey, opens on Broadway in the fall.
The film version of his innovative off-Broadway play, “The Last Five Years” (book, music and lyrics by Jason…you get the picture) will be in theaters later this year.
All this on top of the Tony he won (best original music score) for “Parade,” about the Leo Frank trial and “13,” his Broadway follow-up, about a young bar mitzvah-age boy transplanted from New York to the Midwest after his parents divorce.
I first saw Jason perform almost 20 years ago at a small suburban theater not far from Monsey, NY, where he grew up. I wish I could say I purposely sought out the show. Actually, his show was — to my way of thinking — just thrown in as part of a subscription to the plays I really wanted to see. But it wasn’t very long before he blew away with a musical review, “Songs for a New World.”
After that I followed him almost everywhere, walking that fine line between sycophant and stalker. I saw “The Last Five Years,” the story of his first marriage. I sat across the aisle from him at a preview performance of “Parade.” (For the record, that was a coincidence.)
At “13,” the PR folks gave out CDs of the score with the press kit and I rushed to him to get it autographed. He told me I was the first.
Finally, at the Paper Mill, I saw him in the lobby, reminded him of our past and begged him for an interview. He said three magic words I’ll never forget: “See the publicist.”
Well it wasn’t “no.” So here we are, a few weeks before Madison County is slated to open, and Jason is on the phone.
Curt Schleier: When did you realize you’re a genius?
The first time I spoke to Steve Rosen, almost 10 years ago, I credited him with sole responsibility for the Broadway production of “Spamalot.” Forget Monty Python. It was a Steve Rosen production.
Rosen played Sir Bedevere as well as several other characters, and of course participated in the chorus of the song that generated the most audience reaction, “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway.” It went like this:
In any great adventure,
that you don’t want to lose,
victory depends upon the people that you choose.
So, listen, Arthur darling, closely to this news:
We won’t succeed on Broadway,
If you don’t have any Jews.
The song went on to suggest that without Jews all you’ll get is boos. Your show won’t be saved even with great reviews, if you don’t have any Jews.
It turned out I was wrong. After the story was published, director Mike Nichols approached Rosen and said “You’re not the only out Jew in this production.”
Rosen offered that postscript in a phone conversation about his latest production, “The Other Josh Cohen.” It opens February 23 at the Paper Mill Theatre in Millburn, N.J., in what Rosen hopes is a pre-Broadway run.
The show originally ran off-Broadway for a brief Hurricane Sandy-interrupted run. But good reviews have prompted producers to resurrect the show.
Curt Schleier: I thought it was an inventive show and great fun. Where did that come from?
The sea of love can be a “dark and scary place — deep, cold, impenetrable, and populated by billions of freakish creatures lurking in the depths with their gnashing teeth and electrified appendages,” Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love essay column in The New York Times, writes in his new book, “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers),” (HarperCollins).
Jones should know: He receives about 100 submissions a week for the column, which he’s edited for the past nine years. Appearing in the Sunday Style section, Modern Love is one of the most-read columns in the world — by women, anyway. Columns have resulted in at least 37 different books, making the column one of the most sought-after reads by writers, as well.
You might expect Jones to know everything there is to know about love, but he denies being a guru. In “Love Illuminated,” he examines the trends he’s seen over the past decade, broken down by stages from “Pursuit” to “Connection” to “Monotony” to “Infidelity,” mixed with anecdotes from published essays, his own pre-Internet path to marriage and amusing questionnaires.
The Forward’s Amy Klein spoke to Jones, who has a Jewish grandfather and his wife is Jewish, about concepts like destiny, soul mates, the role religion plays in love and, of course, what type of stories pique his interest enough to be published in Modern Love.
Listen to Pentatonix, and you’ll be sure that you hear instruments. In fact, it is an a cappella quintet of young singers — four men and one woman — who perform without any accompaniment, and manage to make a remarkable range of sounds in musical styles ranging from pop to electronica to R&B and dubstep.
Pentatonix emerged just over two years ago, when they won the third season of the a cappella reality show “The Sing Off.” They’ve put out three albums thus far and, with 4.5 million YouTube subscribers, are hugely popular. Pentatonix’s super-fun medley of Daft Punk songs has close to 47 million views on YouTube, and their cover of Lorde’s “Royals” more than 23 million. Pentatonix also sings original songs, like the delicate, powerful “Run to You.”
Avi Kaplan, 24, is Pentatonix’s baritone or “vocal bass.” Kaplan has been making music with a cappella groups since high school and was majoring in opera, as well as winning prizes as part of a vocal jazz ensemble, at a California college when he was invited to join the nascent Pentatonix right before “The Sing Off” auditions. He also plays guitar and arranges choral and a cappella music. Kaplan spoke with The Arty Semite from Texas, where the group was getting ready for a college performance, in a warm up to their 28-date sold-out North American concert tour, which began February 5 in Tulsa and will lead into a European tour.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Why do you think a cappella music is so popular?
On January 21, at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, the Forward caught up with Ronald Krauss, writer and director of “Gimme Shelter,” which opened in theaters January 24. The movie stars Vanessa Hudgens as Apple Bailey, a desperate pregnant teenager who runs away from a cruel drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson). Apple tries to connect to her wealthy dad (Brendan Fraser), but things keep looking bleaker until she meets Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). He introduces her to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who runs a shelter.
Krauss, 43, has been writing, producing and directing movies since his first short film in 1988, “Puppies for Sale,” which starred Jack Lemmon. The seed for “Gimme Shelter” came when Krauss’s previous movie, “Amexica,” a drama about human trafficking, was screened at the United Nations. There he was introduced to Kathy DiFiore, a woman being honored at the U.N. for her 30-plus years of work with homeless teenage mothers. Krauss arranged to visit one of her shelters and thought he’d found the perfect subject for a documentary. He stayed a year and recorded 200 hours of interviews. “The shelter began to seem like holy ground,” said Krauss, “and the research launched my screenplay.”
Dorri Olds: What inspired the main character, Apple?
Ron Krauss: Exactly four years ago today, I saw a young girl standing outside the shelter. She had no jacket and it was freezing. I brought her inside. Her name was Darlisha Dozier and when I told her there was a bed she hugged me so hard it sent a jolt to my heart.
How did you choose Vanessa Hudgens for Apple?
British pop-culture monthly Uncut excited music fans this month with its review of what may be the world’s first Finnish-Jewish blues trio. Trouble was, the magazine got it wrong. Talmud Beach may have a Jewish name, but none of its players are members of the tribe. The band’s moniker, though, bears a Semitic connection. Bearded, hat-wearing guitarist Aleksi Lukander nearly got beaten for his “Jewish” looks, “and the experience led to the phrase Talmud Beach,” says their label’s website.
The band also draws on Jewish inspirations for its stripped-down, nearly sepulchral tunes; Lukander cites sources as far-flung as Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen for Talmud Beach’s textures and colors. The band got its start in 2006 on Mannerheimintie — one of Helsinki’s main drags, and a hub for buskers — where Lukander and drummer Petri Alanko both lived and played. Bassist Milko Siltanen joined in 2011. The Forward talked to Lukander by email from Helsinki about mistaken identity, the musical potential of the Talmud, and a pointed Jewish response to the band’s name.
Michael Kaminer: You adopted the name Talmud Beach after a few scary incidents where you were mistaken for a Jew — and violence ensued. Can you explain?
Aleksi Lukander: Me and the drummer Petri were traveling around Eastern Europe and playing on the streets a few years back. For the first time I had grown a long dark beard. I’d bought a black hat for the trip, because all the old bluesmen wore hats. At the time I usually wore a black blouse and black pants — so I was wearing black pants, black blouse, black hat and I had long dark beard. I didn’t realize it myself, at first I was stunned, why do people think I’m jewish? Then my friend took a photo of me and it was only then, when I saw the connection.
The fuzzy guitars, pulsating bass,and incomprehensible lyrics intrigued me. So I looked up the song that was streaming on KEXP, the Seattle indie-rock station I broadcast at home. The band’s name seemed Finnish or Icelandic, until I realized the words were actually phonetic Hebrew.
Vaadat Chirigim, it turns out, is that rarest of musical animals — an Israeli rock band poised to break big stateside. The Tel Aviv noise trio is having a huge year. Along with an album release on California-based Burger Records for “The World Is Well Lost” — a slightly awkward translation of [“Haolam Avad Mizman”] — Vaadat Chirigim have become darlings of trendspotting media like Spin, Paste, and Filter. KEXP, a hugely influential station, even made Haolam Avad Mizman’s title track its song of the day — a bullseye for a new band. The Forward caught up with guitarist and singer Yuval Haring from Tel Aviv.
Michael Kaminer: Your songs have Hebrew names. Is there anything inherently Jewish or Israeli about the music you write and play?
Yuval Haring: Our songs are completely in Hebrew, not just the names. We sing about the end of the world. The end of Tel Aviv bohemia. About apocalypse. About not being able to let go of the past. It is nostalgic. It is about hopelessness and at the same time it is about moving forward. It is about everything that Israeli youth today is concerned with (and I mean the youth that I’m surrounded by; not everyone, of course). The fact that there is no future in sight that isn’t controlled by fat pinkish rich politicians who are only concerned with old-school ethics and maintaining financial face.
Somewhere in the universe of critics, a Broadway purist will dismiss “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” as just another jukebox show.
But don’t mention that to Jarrod Spector, 32, who portrays Barry Mann: “A jukebox musical is something like ‘Mamma Mia,’ where you take a bunch of songs and make up a story around them. ‘Beautiful’ is a bio-musical. Rather than a story out of context, you’re actually getting a look at the genesis of these songs. You’re getting a look at the music industry in the ‘60s, when a bunch of Jewish teenagers sat in little rooms and wrote songs for black singers and soul groups.”
Jake Epstein, 26, who plays Gerry Goffin, adds: “This is a show about how these songs came to be.”
The music of King and Goffin, her writing partner and former husband, and Barry Mann and his wife and writing partner Cynthia Weil, with songs such as “Take Good Care of my Baby,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” among others, helped define the baby boomer generation.
Spector and Epstein spoke to the Forward about the music they listened to growing up, Jewish mothers, and playing drums in a Rage Against the Machine cover band.
Curt Schleier: Were you a fan of this music growing up?
For nearly 20 years, Rabbi David Cooper has been among the pioneers of Jewish meditation. Through his bestselling books and popular retreats, Cooper and his wife Shoshana have helped to create the hybrid of Buddhist and Jewish meditation practices that is now commonplace at synagogues across the country. Love it or hate it, the “BuJu” phenomenon continues to grow, influencing clergy and laypeople, the religious and the secular, traditionalists and innovators.
But now the Coopers are scaling back. This winter’s retreat will be their last at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. There are no more books in the pipeline. And the Coopers are passing the baton to a new generation of teachers, which includes me.
Part of the reason for this quasi-retirement is simply that the Coopers are getting older, and it’s tiring to travel across the country and teach a hundred students at a retreat. But a primary motivation is Rabbi Cooper’s recent diagnosis of Lewy body disease, a degenerative form of Parkinson’s that can cause severe dementia. The diagnosis is a serious one, and, of course, bitterly ironic for someone who has spent his career teaching others how to develop and strengthen their minds. Yet for now, Cooper insists, “I’m really fine.” While the diagnosis is clear, the prognosis — how the disease will actually unfold — is not.
“Handle With Care” starts with a loud monologue unintelligible to most audience members because it’s in Hebrew. True, that’s not how plays typically begin — at least outside of Tel Aviv — but somehow it all works. In fact, The New York Times called the show “hilarious and heartwarming.”
While top billing goes to Carol Lawrence, the main character and screamer, Ayelet, is played by Charlotte Cohn, in real life a former Israeli tank commander who, as it happens, is married to the playwright, Jason Odell Williams.
What Ayelet is yelling about is that the body of her deceased grandmother Edna (Lawrence) has somehow disappeared. The two were vacationing in the U.S. when grandma passed. The body was in an airport-bound package delivery truck that was stolen with its contents. In the process of recovering the truck, fate and love eventually triumph.
Cohn was born in Denmark to a Danish father and an Israeli mother, but was raised in Jerusalem. She served in the military for five years as tank commander and in intelligence. She saw action, but “can’t really talk about it.”
Williams says his background “is not as interesting,” but his present certainly is. In addition to having his first play produced, he’s a writer/producer of the Emmy-nominated children’s show, “Brain Game,” and his first novel, “Personal Statement,” published last August, was promptly optioned by a film studio.
Cohn and Williams spoke to the Forward about how her parents met cute, how they met themselves, and how the play came about.
Curt Schleier: Your father is Danish. Your mother is Israeli. How did they meet?
Jonah Hill has reached a new high. The 30-year-old comic actor is co-starring with Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which opened December 25. On December 19, Hill spoke at “Reel Pieces,” the Annette Insdorf series at the 92Y. Hill comes across as a man with integrity, intensity, intelligence, and someone you just want to hug.
What led up to you landing the role of Donnie Azoff?
Jonah Hill: Leo DiCaprio was promoting a film in Mexico and by chance I was too. He was the producer of “The Wolf of Wall Street” so I thought “I want to meet with him before I meet Martin Scorsese.” We sat down for a meeting. When we met I said “I have to play this part, so I’m sorry if you have anyone else in mind. That’s just not going to happen.” [Grins]
Why were you so sure you should play this part?
I recognized that person in society. I had to be a part of illuminating what’s wrong with that kind of excess and valuing money over everything else.
When did you hear you got the part?
Alex Borstein interrupts her stint as a horticultural voyeur to take a phone call. “I’m standing on something to see my neighbour’s deck and her new flower pots,” she explains. “They’re really fancy and kind of put my deck to shame.”
It’s hard to believe that Borstein has time to smell or look at the flowers. She is a veteran of the sketch comedy show MADtv, on which she appeared for five seasons (1997-2002). She voices Lois Griffin (and has written and produced episodes) on “Family Guy,” written for and appears in the Showtime series, “Shameless,” and currently stars in the new HBO series “Getting On.”
The last is a very — make that extremely — dark comedy set in an extended care facility. Borstein plays Nurse Dawn, an insecure RN whose obsession with finding a boyfriend sometimes undermines her job performance.
Landscaping — or, more accurately, deckscaping — envy aside, Borstein spoke to the Forward about her still popular MADtv character, Miss Swan, why she took a role so different from anything she’d done in the past, and how she decided whether or not her son should attend Hebrew school.
Curt Schleier: I assume you are aware that thanks to You Tube, your character, Miss Swan, lives on. My grandchildren delight in showing me a new video of you every time I see them. I moved up a notch on the cool scale when I told them I was going to interview you.
Alex Borstein: I’m aware that it’s still out there, and I’m glad I could make your life better.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is easily the best reviewed musical of the season. It marks the Broadway debut of Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), who were praised by The New York Times for a score that “establishes itself as one of the most accomplished (and probably the most literate) to be heard on Broadway in the past dozen years or so.”
The play is based on a 1907 novel by Brit Roy Horniman that was turned into a 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” starring Alec Guinness.
It’s a simple tale. Poor Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) is visited by a friend of his late mother, who informs him that he is related to the Earl of Highhurst. It seems his mom was banished when she married Monty’s dad, a Castillian. Now Monty is just eight (soon to be dead) relatives away from an earldom.
Freedman (from Los Angeles) and Lutvak (in New York) spoke to the Forward about the long road from concept to Broadway, the plot’s Jewish antecedents, and creating underdog characters.
Curt Schleier: How did this project begin?