Photo by Carol Rosegg
“Cafe Society Swing,” a new musical that opened in New York on December 21, has so many good parts it’s a shame they don’t fit together.
The play tells the story of Barney Josephson, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants who scrapped together a few thousand bucks and, in 1938, opened a Greenwich Village nightspot he called Cafe Society. A fan of jazz, he wanted to bring downtown the music he’d seen uptown at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
But with a difference: In Harlem, the audiences were almost all white (black customers were seated in the back behind partitions) and the entertainers all black. Even legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington had to come in through the back door.
Influenced by the political cabarets of Prague and Berlin, Josephson integrated both the Cafe Society entertainers and audience. Billie Holliday, bluesman Big Joe Turner, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, folk singer Josh White, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn graced the club’s stage. Jack Guilford was a long-time MC, as was Zero Mostel. Imogene Coca and Carol Channing, among others, also appeared there.
Frank Wildhorn will be appearing at 54 Below this week.
For those who don’t know, 54 Below is a supper club located essentially underneath what was Studio 54 (where all the action used to take place).
For those who don’t know Frank Wildhorn, he wrote “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” a number one international hit for Whitney Houston.
He also is the most successful contemporary writer of musicals on Broadway. In 1999, he had three shows on the Great White Way simultaneously: “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Civil War.” His musicals are hits all over the world.
When we spoke, he had just returned from Tokyo and Seoul, where he celebrated openings and re-openings of his work. In fact, it’s estimated that some 40,000 people attend a Wildhorn musical every day of the year. Everyone, it seems, loves Wildhorn’s work.
Except the Broadway critics. Wildhorn spoke to the Forward about the lack of love he gets from them, the Jewish project he promised his dad, and how he taught himself to play an instrument.
Curt Schleier: Critics don’t like you, do they?
Daniel Cainer’s “Jewish Chronicles,” currently at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is a delightful cabaret act filled with Yiddishkeit and Yiddish-cute.
Cainer is a British Jew who grew up in an observant household, but, inexplicably, was sent to a Church of England School. (Ironically, he notes, the school later became a synagogue, proving “God has a sense of humor.”)
Cainer became a musician and composer, and admits he didn’t have “much to do with the Jewish world until recently,” when he experienced a “midlife kosher crisis.” That’s when a rabbi came to him in a dream and told him he should write a Jewish musical.
So here he is, sitting on a bare stage behind what presumably was a Yamaha electric piano, renamed a “Yamalka” for the occasion. Over his 80-minute set he sings a half dozen songs, which doesn’t sound like much. But they are not so much songs as ballads, short stories set to music, about his family and observations of life around him.
Cainer starts with a song about two tailors set to a ragtime beat — pausing only long enough to point out to the humorless that that was a joke — tailors, ragtime, get it? Would it have worked better for you if he said shmatte time?
Photo: Joan Marcus
Joel Fields had me at “Hello.”
He began our phone conversation like this:
“A quick hello and let me tell you I can’t believe I’m getting a chance to talk to someone at the Forward. It was such a big part of my childhood. My dad, who passed away in January, was a rabbi [Harvey Fields, long time head of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles]. I grew up in East Brunswick [N.J.]. We lived in Israel. We moved to Toronto where I attended the Bialik Hebrew Day School and learned Yiddish. And the Forward was always present in our lives.”
Eat your heart out, New York Times.
Fields made his bones as a television writer. He worked on “Ugly Betty” and “Rizzoli & Isles” and is currently writer and executive producer on “The Americans,” one of those hot water cooler shows on FX.
But that’s not the reason we’re talking. Along with writer David Lee (“Wings,” “Frasier”), Fields took on the daunting task of re-writing “Can-Can,” which opens October 1 at the Paper Mill Theater. The Abe Burrows-Cole Porter musical, featuring ageless songs such as “I Love Paris” and “C’est Magnifique,” was a success in both its Broadway and West End productions and spawned a Frank Sinatra movie. But subsequent revivals failed to wow audiences.
Fields spoke to his favorite paper about how this production came about, why it took more than a decade to make it to the stage, and why he doesn’t count his Broadway chickens before they hatch.
Curt Schleier: You’re a TV guy. How did come to make a musical?
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Growing up in Australia, Danny Ginges was both fascinated and fearful of the atomic bomb, and as an adult delved deeper into the story of the scientists who created the monster. The more he discovered of these men (and woman) and their top-secret Manhattan Project, the clearer it became that one name was lesser known than the others.
Ginges was working in advertising in Sydney in 2002 when he wrote a screenplay revolving around Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-American, Jewish physicist who conceived nuclear chain reaction. A decade later Ginges’s project has evolved into the big, polished, off-Broadway musical “Atomic,” on through August 16 at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre.
“When I came across Szilard’s story it both engaged me and enraged me,” Ginges said. “My anger that such an important figure should be forgotten by history is the fuel that’s driven me this far, and continues to drive me every single day. I feel very strongly that Szilard has a message for today. Fifty years after his death, it’s high time it was told.”
Oppenheimer, performed by Euan Morton, narrates the fleet-footed show that includes a surprising mix of gleeful dancing and rock music (by Philip Foxman), a daring contrast with the tragedies of the Holocaust and World War ll (cue “Springtime for Hitler”). Book and lyrics are by Gregory Bonsignore and Ginges, who hopes “Atomic” restarts a dialog. ”A lot of people don’t want to deal with this event, even after this much time. But it’s better not to have things locked up in a closet.”
Photo: Jenny Anderson
Bert Berns is the best pop songwriter you never heard of.
“Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” is the best new musical of the summer, and you heard that here first.
Berns was an angst-ridden Jewish kid from the Bronx, haunted by a weak heart and a doctor’s predictions that he wouldn’t live beyond 30. He died at 38, but not before writing a slew of hits including “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Cry Baby” (among many others). He also produced early hits for Neil Diamond, Solomon Burke and Van Morrison (among others).
“Piece of My Heart” is a highly entertaining (if not entirely factual), toe-tapping retelling of Berns’s story. Book writer Daniel Goldfarb (“Modern Orthodox,” “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie”) has taken an imaginative approach.
Bert’s daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzler) gets a mysterious phone call urging her to return to New York, to her father’s office. When she gets there, she meets Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia (Joseph Siravo), her dad’s best friend, manager and supporter, who has mob connections.
He’s concerned because Jessie’s mom, Ilene (Linda Hart), is about to sell Bert’s catalogue. Jessie, who ostensibly was only 10 days old when her father passed away, knew nothing of this. She didn’t even know he had an office, so Wassel takes her on a journey into the past.
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.
“Alice Longworth Roosevelt said, ‘First you’re young, then you’re middle-aged, then you’re wonderful,’” Stephen Sondheim remarked at the conclusion of his 80th birthday celebrations at Avery Fisher Hall in 2010.
Now very much in his wonderful years, Broadway’s greatest living composer-lyricist is experiencing a phase in his career where revivals, musical reviews and fêtes honoring his achievements have filled the void left by the absence of new material. His last original musical, “Road Show” — which had been in development since the mid-1990s — played Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2008. One must look back to “Passion” in 1994 to find Sondheim’s last musical début on Broadway.
But since “Road Show,” Broadway has experienced revivals of “Gypsy,” “West Side Story,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Follies,” as well as a New York City Center production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” “Sondheim on Sondheim” — a revue which included an original song, “God,” written by Sondheim — played Studio 54 in 2010. Last year, New York City Center put on “A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair,” which wrapped jazz arrangements of Sondheim’s back catalogue by Wynton Marsalis around an original plot.
Now, 54 Below — the Broadway cabaret and restaurant on West 54th Street — is staging “Three Wishes for Sondheimas,” turning Stephen Sondheim’s birthday — he will turn 84 on March 22 — into something of a religious festival for musical theatre aficionados. Described as “one part concert, one part hilarious worship service,” the evening will tell “the Birth of Steve as you’ve never seen it before,” featuring a salad of Broadway actors and dancers, puppeteers, and the Sondheimas Tabernacle Choir.
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.
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?
“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?
Once upon a time, Americans grew up humming show tunes. They dominated radio airwaves, so, even if you hadn’t seen the musicals (or the films made from them), you knew the melodies and words to the songs of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady.”
But that changed as pop, rock and rap started to control airtime. Today, it’s a rare Broadway song that cracks the national consciousness. It’s in part for this reason that James Lapine’s HBO documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” which debuts December 9, is so fascinating and important.
Lapine uses archival footage as well as fresh performances by Audra McDonald and America Ferrera of six Stephen Sondheim songs to tell the story of the composer’s fascinating and troubled life.
Some of the stories will be familiar to Sondheim enthusiasts, especially those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s outstanding biography, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” He was a child of divorce. His mother once sent him a note saying she was sorry she gave birth to him. But he lived near the Pennsylvania home of Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored and encouraged him and became almost an adoptive parent.
That turns out to have been entirely appropriate, since Sondheim went on to become heir to Hammerstein (and Rodgers) and certainly the greatest Broadway composer of his generation. His shows, starting with “West Side Story” and including “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
He’s sort of like Mozart,” Lapine told the Forward in a telephone interview. “His work is going to live.”
Of course, Lapine is not exactly an unbiased observor. He’s been Sondheim’s partner on several musicals. They shared the Pulitzer for “Sunday in the Park” and Lapine won a half dozen Tonys for directing and writing the book of plays for which Sondheim wrote music. Lapine talked to the Forward about how he and Sondheim met, about their collaborations, and how the film came about.
Curt Schleier: How did you meet Stephen?
Glen Berger wasn’t surprised when the announcement came. He’d had an inkling that “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” was on the last of its eight legs well before producers made it official.
“I was speaking to some of the actors back in August, and the general feeling was that unless a miracle happens we were going to close in January,” he told the Forward. “It wasn’t the attendance or the grosses, but the weekly running costs were that high.”
Berger was hired by Julie Taymor, who conceived and directed the play, to co-write the book with her. Along with the show’s composers, Bono and The Edge of U2, Berger ultimately split with Taymor, and re-imagined the play, which officially opened in mid-2011.
Berger wrote about that experience in “Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.” He spoke to the Forward about the critical response to the play, his 13-year leave of absence from Judaism, and what he discovered when he returned.
Curt Schleier: What were you doing when you were selected to co-write Spiderman?
Glen Berger: I was the head writer of the PBS children’s show, “Fetch.” It was an animated program with a mandate to teach science to kids. It was seen every week by 2 or 3 million people. A lot of people say Glen Berger was plucked from obscurity. But my show was seen every week by more people than “The Lion King” in its first five years.
The publication of Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” has seemed to reassert the prominence of “Fiddler” as the Jewish musical to end all Jewish musicals. “Fiddler,” Eileen Reynolds wrote in her review of Solomon’s book, “has achieved something like folklore status in the American imagination, and grapples, as any history of this musical must, with fundamental questions about Jewish identity.”
The same year that “Fiddler” premiered on Broadway, however, another American musical brought not only Jewish themes and narratives to forefront but also a new star to the stage. That was “Funny Girl,” a fast-and-loose biographical telling of the life of entertainer Fanny Brice, played by Barbra Streisand. But unlike “Fiddler,” “Funny Girl” remains undervalued, and is not generally considered to be as important a musical.
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the American Jewish audience was able see something of itself. This not only had to do with the musical’s presentation of shtetl life, with the spectre of expulsion and pogrom looming over everything, but also with the struggle between tradition and modernity. New political and cultural ideas like Marxism and intermarriage challenge longstanding belief and Tevye, as the embodiment of this antagonism between past and present, seeks to preserve his relationships with his wife and daughters as the shtetl disintegrates around him.
Sheldon Harnick isn’t going to be 90 until next April, but the celebration of that milestone kicks off October 27. That’s when Brooklyn’s Encompass New Opera Theater honors one of Broadway’s greatest lyricists at its annual gala.
The group works with young composers of musical theater and opera. Harnick has been associated with the company for 40 years. So even though he didn’t want to rush the big nine-oh, he agreed to go ahead. A who’s-who of Broadway is involved, including Harold Prince and the Stephens, Schwartz and Sondheim.
Harnick is right at home in that pantheon of the American Songbook. He and his long-time partner Jerry Bock were the musical team behind “Fiorello!” (which won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (nine Tonys), among other plays.
And age hasn’t slowed him down. He’s shopping a new musical based on a Molière play, “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” There’ll be mini-productions of five of his lesser-known plays at the York Theater in Manhattan later this season. And he and his wife, Margery, have collaborated on a coffee table book, “The Outdoor Museum,” which combines her photographs of New York with his poems.
The lyricist spoke to The Arty Semite from his home in East Hampton about what’s going on in his life, early negative reaction to “Fiddler” and how Sondheim almost derailed his career.
Curt Schleier: With this big birthday coming up, do you think back and say, “Holy Moly. This was a great life”?
First dates are always problematic. That’s especially true when it’s a blind date. The inherent tensions of the situation form the humorous backdrop for a new Broadway musical, “First Date.”
Aaron (Zachary Levi) is a little uptight; Casey (Krysta Rodriguez) is less so. It does not look like this is a match made in heaven. Or is it?
The play was written by Austin Winsberg with music and lyrics provided by his friends, Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. “The idea came from us, three Jewish boys who dated a lot of girls, and what we thought of the dating world,” Winsberg told The Arty Semite.
This is the first play for Winsberg, whose background is mostly in film and television (“Jake in Progress,” “Still Standing”). He spoke to the Forward about his blind date experiences, dealing with some “mean spirited” reviews and his own bar mitzvah — in Israel, at age 19.
Curt Schleier: Did you meet your wife on a blind date?
Austin Winsberg: I did, actually. My best friend growing up is her third cousin. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time and reconnected at a Mother’s Day reunion. He and I have the same taste, and he told me had this wonderful person for me he wanted to set me up with. I asked him if she’s so great why don’t you want her. He said it was because she was his cousin. So we went out to dinner.
How did it go?
“Kinky Boots” won six Tony awards on Sunday including the top award of best musical and a prize for its composer, pop queen Cyndi Lauper, as Broadway presented its top honors.
Lauper won best score for her first Broadway musical, “Kinky Boots,” an adaptation of a British film about a struggling shoe factory reinventing itself by making boots for drag queens.
The hit musical topped the nominations with 13 and also won best actor in a musical for Billy Porter, best choreography, orchestrations and sound design.
A tearful Lauper said “I can’t say I wasn’t practicing in front of the shower curtain for the past couple of days,” and went on to “thank Broadway, for welcoming me.”
Porter, who as the strong, proud drag queen is at the show’s heart, said he first watched the Tony telecast at home at age 11, and recalled a performance from the musical “Dreamgirls” by saying “That moment has changed my life.”
The best play Tony was won by “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a crowd-pleasing comic riff on Anton Chekhov’s work by veteran playwright Christopher Durang that stars Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce.
Stephen Sondheim turns 83 today — a birthday always worth noting, though this time it will pass without an entire year of galas and concerts, as was the case on the composer’s 80th. Even considering the Jewish contributors to modern American musical theater — Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein (and many, many more) — it is Sondheim who has done the most to explore what is possible within the boundaries of the musical form. He is constantly pushing and reinventing, making musicals about ideas, themes, and plots that few other composers would have taken on. As such, I have selected what I consider to be his three finest musicals, though dissent in the comments section is welcome.
“A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and girlfriends. That is the entire plot.”
In fact, there isn’t really a plot at all to Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which is what makes show such an important break in the history of the American musical. “Company” derives its content from a series of one-act plays written by George Furth, all about a couple in a relationship and an outsider. In the finished piece, the outsiders were composited into a single character, Bobby, with each song a one-act play in itself, a window into the life of Bobby and his relationships with these married couples.
The original “Hairspray” (1988) was a weird little movie made by cult director John Waters about rock and roll and race relations in 1960s Baltimore. Then it became a smash musical on Broadway, then a 2007 film adaptation of that Broadway hit. Now, the show is coming to Jerusalem, with a community theater production featuring 32 Anglo-Israeli and Ethiopian-Israeli singers, dancers and actors who share the stage and the spotlight.
Hairspray’s local-girl-makes-good story was groundbreaking enough because of its main character, Tracy Turnblad, a non-willowy, self-confident dynamo who won’t be discouraged just because she looks like the real girl next door. But the narrative pushes two additional buttons as well: race relations — an issue which defined Baltimore in the 1960s, as integration swept through a still-adjusting nation — and women’s empowerment, which enables self-effacing housewife Edna Turnblad to reclaim her zest for life, and to transform herself into a civil rights activist her daughter can look up to.
With empowerment, freedom, confidence and racial equality as its thematic DNA, the production hits Jerusalem for six shows between March 5 and 21.
“Hairspray is almost more relevant here than it ever was in the States, since it was written at a time when segregation and institutionalized racism were mostly things of the past in America,” Director Eli Kaplan-Wildmann explained. “Our cast is made up of people who face these issues today in their own lives, and we hope to bring an awareness of that to Jerusalem.”
When my parents landed in New York in 1947 they were assigned a case worker. I’m not sure who did the assigning, but I remember my father saying how puzzled he was. “Case” was German for cheese, and he didn’t understand why he needed a cheese worker.
My parents didn’t tell many stories about their early lives, about crossing the border from Austria into Switzerland after the Anschluss or how they got to the goldene medina. Perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions.
But that particular anecdote stayed with me, because it was about their life at the precipice. They were starting a new life in a new land with a new language, one briefly filled with optimism and faith that life could and would be better.
Perhaps that is why I am such a fan of the new National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene production of “The Golden Land,” a joyous celebration of the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant experience.