The Arty Semite

A Soviet Journey to Adulthood

By Anna Goldenberg

Ellen Litman dreamed of being a writer when she went to school in Moscow in the 1980s. There was only one problem: She was Jewish, and thus she was advised to focus on something more practical, since in the Soviet Union, Jews couldn’t be successful at writing.

Litman studied math and computer programming, and immigrated to Pittsburgh with her family in 1992. It took her several years to work up the courage to take a writing class; she worried that she couldn’t write in a language that was not her native one. It turned out she could: In 2004, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. In 2007, she published her first book, “The Last Chicken in America,” which deals with the experiences of a young woman from Russia trying to settle into Pittsburgh.

In March, Litman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches writing and English, released her second novel, “Mannequin Girl.” Set in a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis, it tells the story of a Jewish girl, Kat, and her journey into adulthood dealing with her parents, who teach at her school, as well as unrequited love and latent anti-Semitism.

Litman, 40, lives with her husband and two children in Mansfield, Conn. She spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about playing with autobiographical elements and why moving to the United States hasn’t changed her idea of Judaism.

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Forgotten Songwriter of 'Twist and Shout'

By Michael Kaminer

“Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Piece of My Heart.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.”

The songs are recognized almost everywhere. But their Jewish creator, Bert Berns, has nearly vanished into obscurity.

That should change this year, with a book, documentary, and stage musical — all inspired by Berns and his music. April 15 sees the release of Joel Selvin’s “Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues” (Counterpoint); in June, the off-Broadway musical “Piece of My Heart” will open at the Pershing Square Signature Theater in Manhattan. And a documentary on Berns is slated for distribution this fall.

Other Brill Building songwriters may have had the glory, but few influenced pop music as much as Berns. He stewarded the early careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison, co-founded Bang Records with music-industry heavyweights Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and recorded with legends like the Isley Brothers, the Drifters, and Ben E. King. And none other than Sir Paul McCartney extolled Berns and his music in a recent video posted on Time.com.

The son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, Berns contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which ultimately caused his death from a heart defect in 1967. His son, Brett, and daughter, Cassandra, are now overseeing the multimedia celebration of their father and his work.

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The Dean of Gay Journalism

By Michael Kaminer

The marketing spiel makes the John C. Anderson Apartments sound like an enviable place to live: Open floor plans, oversized windows, and fully equipped kitchens, all in a happening downtown neighborhood.

The twist: The just-opened Philadelphia building is a pioneering “LGBT-friendly senior apartment community” — the only one in Pennsylvania, and one of just three LGBT-oriented senior housing developments nationwide.

As they sang the project’s praises at a ribbon-cutting last month, dignitaries like Mayor Michael Nutter and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell singled out one man as the force behind it: Philadelphia Gay News founder and publisher Mark Segal.

A longtime gay activist who first took to the front lines for civil rights in the 1960s, Segal almost singlehandedly pushed elected officials, government agencies and development partners to make the Anderson Apartments a reality.

It’s just the latest milestone for Segal, 61, whose gay activism started at age 18. Anyone old enough to remember Walter Cronkite might recall Segal’s famous disruption a CBS Evening News broadcast to protest a lack of coverage of gay issues. Today, he’s widely praised as the dean of gay journalism.

On the day before he and partner Jason Villmez departed for a long-awaited vacation — “I’m not telling you where!” Segal joked — the Forward caught up with him in Philadelphia.

Michael Kaminer: Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized the John C. Anderson Apartments were necessary?

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Rock Journalism and Mick Jagger's Shoes

By Michael Kaminer

When Lisa Robinson name-checks Elton, Mick and Iggy, it sounds completely natural. It should; through four decades, the legendary music journalist has been nearly as pivotal a pop figure as her subjects. Robinson famously introduced David Bowie to Iggy Pop, helped The Clash and Elvis Costello score record deals, and hung out with the Beatles. In great detail, she recounts these and other unbelievable-but-true anecdotes in “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll” (Riverhead Books), a vivid, richly detailed memoir that functions as a de facto history of rock — and of an edgier, bygone New York.

Robinson culled her copy from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews she’s collected since her first columns were published in the British music weekly Disc and Music Echo in 1969. Today, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she oversees music coverage and profiles pop royalty like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga — who ended up cooking Robinson pasta. The Forward caught up with Robinson by phone from Manhattan, where she lives with her husband of more than four decades, Richard Robinson, himself a onetime rock journalist who produced Lou Reed’s first solo album.

Michael Kaminer: “There Goes Gravity” offers all of these fascinating anecdotes about pop legends, but gives away very little about Lisa Robinson. Why did you leave out autobiographical details?

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Richard Shepard on His Dad and 'Dom Hemingway'

By Dorri Olds

For the comedy crime drama, “Dom Hemingway,” Jude Law transformed himself into a vulgar, violent, puffy and unhinged alcoholic fresh out of prison. The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) and the cast includes Richard E. Grant (“Dracula”) as Dom’s pal Dickie and Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir (“A Better Life”) as Mr. Fontaine, a Russian mobster that Dom didn’t rat out. Dom feels entitled to a big reward, so after a few excursions to the English pubs to get pissed and have hedonistic times with hookers, Dom sets off to find Fontaine and get what he deserves.

The Arty Semite caught up with Shepard to talk about working with Law, his dad, and directing episodes of ‘Girls.’

Dorri Olds: Did you and Jude Law work well together?

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Bosnia Through Muslim Eyes

By Dorri Olds

New York author Susan Shapiro and her Muslim physical therapist, Kenan Trebincevic, bonded, and together they wrote the recently published “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return” (Penguin Books). The book tells the story of the Bosnian War through Trebincevic’s eyes.

In 1992 he was 12 and living a normal, happy childhood, until his beloved karate coach arrived at the door one day with an AK-47 rifle and yelled, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” Christian Serb neighbors and classmates turned on him and his family. Their crime? They were Muslim. Trebincevic fled to America. Now, after two decades in the United States, Trebincevic is going back to visit his homeland to confront the neighbors who’d betrayed him and his family.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Shapiro for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: How did you come to co-write “The Bosnia List”?

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Donald Rumsfeld Gets Interrogated

By Dorri Olds

Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara”) has most recently turned his Interrotron on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 33 hours of interviews in his new film, “The Unknown Known.”

When asked a question Morris’s brain ticks while he stares directly at you. He looks away while he considers each query and responds in a slow, thoughtful cadence. He goes quickly from serious furrowed brows to laughing. The Forward recently caught up with Morris to talk about Rumsfeld, responsibility and Abu Ghraib.

Dorri Olds: Do you think Rumsfeld comes across as likable?

Errol Morris: Yes, but liking him and approving of his policies are two different things. I could come away liking him, even being charmed by him but I was also appalled by him, appalled by the junk philosophy, the manipulation, the ruthlessness, the self-deception, the delusion.

Is he phony or does he still believe in what he did?

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Filmmaker Made Public Humiliation His Muse

By Curt Schleier

Independent filmmakers can face many discouraging obstacles on the road from concept to screen. But Seth Fisher found a way to make sure he would not abandon his first full length feature along the way: his fear of public humiliation.

“As soon as I started writing ‘Blumenthal’ I started a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com,” he said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “Every day I’d post what I did that day. I figured if I was going to announce to the world that I was going to make this movie, I would have to see it through to the end. It would be embarrassing if I stopped.”

That was back in November of 2010. Now, more than three years later, “Blumenthal” opens in New York on March 28. with more cities added in the coming weeks. The movie, already a Jewish film festival darling, is about the family of successful playwright Harold Blumenthal, who dies while laughing at one of his own jokes.

His survivors are a younger and jealous brother, Saul (Mark Blum), Saul’s wife Cheryl (Laila Robins) and his son Ethan (writer/director Fisher). As Saul grapples with his angst, Cheryl deals with aging and Ethan with trying to find the perfect woman.

Fisher spoke to the Forward about where the film came from, why the characters were Jewish, and what Tom Stoppard told him about Jewish characters.

Curt Schleier: I found the film very enjoyable, but I wasn’t entirely sure what you wanted to say. Can you explain?

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How Adam Jacobs Became a Disney Prince

By Curt Schleier

Adam Jacobs has a 1,000-megawatt smile that would put the young Donny Osmond to shame. And he puts it on constant display at the New Amsterdam Theatre in the heart of Times Square, where he plays the title character in the latest Disney megahit, the well-received “Aladdin.”

The son of a Filipino mother and Jewish father, Jacobs sings and dances up a storm as he makes the transition from street ragamuffin to successful suitor for Princess Jasmine’s heart.

Jacobs spent some time recently with the Forward to discuss how he became the go-to actor for Disney royalty, the difference between taking over a theater role and creating one, and balancing princely and fatherly duties.

Curt Schleier: This is not your first shot at Disney royalty, is it?

Adam Jacobs: Not if you count Simba [a role Jacobs played in “The Lion King”] as a prince, even though he’s a lion. He’s the king of the pride. Now I’ve stepped into the role of Aladdin who becomes Prince Ali. I didn’t go into this career knowing that was going to happen, but I’ll take it.

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Fran Drescher Is More Than 'The Nanny'

By Curt Schleier

An idiosyncrasy of the cavernous Broadway Theater in Manhattan — currently home to the hit show “Cinderella” — is that actors need to traverse the stage to get from their dressing rooms to the stage door. So it’s where I wait for Fran Drescher, who has very successfully traversed from lovable Jewish nanny to evil step mom.

But when she appears, it’s more like the fairy godmother — or at least someone with magical powers. Though it’s been 15 years since the finale of her hit TV sitcom, “The Nanny,” the 56-year-old actress hasn’t seemed to age a bit. And that’s not all that hasn’t changed.

There is, of course, the familiar voice, one the adjective nasal only begins to describe. No, she says, in response to a question, she is not comfortable “playing a character that you love to hate. I love playing characters you love to love.”

So the first time she ripped a fancy gown from Cinderella (Carly Rae Jepsen), she actually apologized to the young singer. Recalling that moment, Drescher laughs. That laugh. The laugh once called “the sound of a Buick with an empty gas tank cold cranking on a winter morning.”

Several days later on the phone, she continues the thread of that conversation, speaking also about how she got to Broadway and the perils of her very public life.

Curt Schleier: Did you really apologize to Carly Rae after the scene?

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Filming His Refusenik Father's Doppelganger

By Curt Schleier

Writer/director Arie Posin is standing in the lobby of the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, not far from the red carpet and a dozen or so photographers. Everyone is waiting for Annette Bening and Ed Harris. The two star in Posin’s “The Face of Love” and have come to New York for a post-screening Q&A with media, friends, family and anyone else who can score a ticket.

“The Face of Love” is the kind of small, independent film that, in the face of competition from Superman and Batman, frequently escapes media attention. But Posin doesn’t escape our fascination.

His parents were refusniks lucky enough to get out of Russia and make it to Israel, where Posin was born. Then there was his uncle, Leon Lerman, the famed Russian Yiddish poet. Moreover, his grandmother is seven generations removed from the Baal Shem Tov. On top of all that, the idea for his movie came from his own mother.

“A few years after my father passed away my mother was at a crosswalk outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when she looked up and saw a man who looked very much like him. She told me: ‘A very funny thing happened to me today. I saw a man walking toward me who was a perfect double for your father.’ I asked her, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘I just stopped in the middle of the road. He had a big smile on his face as he walked toward me and it just felt so nice.’”

That encounter became the basis for Posin’s film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles March 7 and opens in additional cities in the coming weeks.

Posin spoke to the Forward about how that incident sparked his imagination, his family history and, most important, his mother’s reaction to the film.

Curt Schleier: What was your reaction when your mother told you that story?

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Marissa Nadler Isn't Afraid of the Dark

By Michael Kaminer

Boston-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, long a critical darling with a cult following, seems poised to cross over with the haunting “July,” (Sacred Bones) her sixth studio album in ten years. Reviews have been the strongest of her career; UK pop bible NME called “July” “a career high,” and the PopMatters blog dubbed it “one of 2014’s best albums so far… A triumph.” Pundits usually trip over themselves trying to describe Nadler’s dark, wry confessional folk; in just one review, music site Pitchfork name-checked Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval, German folkie Sibylle Baier — and Edgar Allan Poe.

Newly signed to high-profile music company Sacred Bones, Nadler is now a labelmate of indie royalty like David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Fleet Foxes, which makes the acid opening lines of “July” feel a bit ironic: “If you ain’t made it now / You’re never gonna make it.” The Forward caught up with the singer by email between gigs in New England to support her new album. “And I’m doing the driving as well!” she said.

Michael Kaminer: Journalists seem to grasp at descriptions for your music. If you had to introduce yourself and your music to our audience in a couple of sentences, how would it read?

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How Jews Became 'White' On Broadway

By Michael Kaminer

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.

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Netanyahu Plays Tour Guide

By Curt Schleier

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.

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When a Toy Is More Than Child's Play

By Michael Kaminer

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?

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Digging Up Washington D.C.'s Jewish Past

By Michael Kaminer

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?

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Turning His Lens on Male Vulnerability

By Michael Kaminer

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?

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Growing Up Jewish in Rock's Golden Age

By Michael Kaminer

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?

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Why TV Writing Is Like Parenthood

By Dorri Olds

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?

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The Year of Jason Robert Brown

By Curt Schleier

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?

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