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.
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?
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.
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.
“Scandalous,” the new Broadway musical about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, was written by Kathie Lee Gifford. No surprise there. Gifford is a well-known born-again Christian with, presumably, an interest in the work of a crusading missionary.
But in a fit of ecumenical irony (or common sense), the two guys she picked to supply the bouncy, gospel-infused music are two Davids, Pomeranz and Friedman, who are singers, composers and Jews who grew up in the New York City area.
Both Pomeranz and Friedman had worked individually on projects with Gifford, but they never worked together until 2005, when Gifford asked them to collaborate on the play, then called “Saving Aimee.” They spoke to The Arty Semite about growing up, why their work on the show isn’t really surprising, and why so much of the American songbook was composed by Jews.
Curt Schleier: What are two Jewish guys doing on this musical? Do either of you feel any Jewish guilt?
David Pomeranz: Not in the slightest, because what we’re talking about in this play is a great woman. None of us are writing a religious play. It’s about a fascinating life, a brave woman who followed her personal private relationship with God, did what was the right thing to do and ran into her own personal problems. Any great person has that dichotomy. They are inspired to do something great and the khazeray in their minds gives them a rough time. That’s what this story is about, a fascinating look into a very complex woman.
“Up From The Stacks” is musical theater, but like no other performance that you may have seen.
The show, which originally appeared in 2011 in New York and had its West Coast premiere February 23 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, tells the story of college student Lincoln Cabinée, who has a part-time job as a page at the main building of the New York Public Library. As we watch Lincoln retrieve books from the stacks below, we encounter a cast of characters populating the catalogue and reading rooms above. Given that the play is set in 1975, decades before 42nd Street was made family friendly, it all takes place against a backdrop of seedy shops and porn palaces.
The offbeat stream-of-consciousness libretto, written by cartoonist Ben Katchor and sung by his collaborator, composer Mark Mulcahy, itself renders “Up From The Stacks” unusual. But what makes the libretto stunning is the perfectly timed projection of Katchor’s colorful panels onto a huge screen hanging above and to the right of Mulcahy and his three-member band. Although there is motion in some of the scenes, it’s not quite what you would call animation.
MacDougal Street today can hardly be described as paradise. Crammed with NYU students jostling for falafel, or the bridge-and-tunnel crowd fighting for a seat at Panchito’s, it’s difficult to picture the street as a hub of subversion and artistry. But once upon a time, it was.
In the 1920s, a Polish Jewish lesbian immigrant named Eve Adams (born Eva Kotchever) owned and operated a tearoom on the block that showcased the work of local writers, musicians and poets. Now Barbara Kahn’s musical, “Unreachable Eden,” which opened February 9 at Theater for the New City, tells the heartbreaking tale of Adams’ deportation from her adopted country, and her struggle to return in the years leading up to the Second World War.
At one point in the musical “Soul Doctor,” an actor says, “There are two types of Jews. Those who have heard of Shlomo Carlebach and those who haven’t — yet.” For either type, “Soul Doctor: The Journey of a Rockstar-Rabbi” can be an enlightening experience.
During his lifetime, Carlebach was known as “The Singing Rabbi” for his use of joyous, Hasidic-inspired music to engage those he called “lost Jewish souls.” His unorthodox path put him in conflict with his mother and rabbi father, but ultimately made him the charismatic legend he became. If “Fiddler on the Roof” is about tradition, “Soul Doctor” is about breaking with tradition, even if that meant, as in Carlebach’s case, breaking his father’s heart.
After a five-week run in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, the biographical show, which bills itself as “pre-Broadway,” could benefit from some judicious nipping-and-tucking. The play compresses Carlebach’s 69 years into a two-act play with 37 scenes, performed by a cast of 18 and featuring 30-plus musical numbers. The play’s co-creator and associate director, David Schechter, wrote some of the lyrics, but most of the songs are Carlebach’s.
Photo by Peter James Zielinski
There are times when a trip to the theater is more than just an evening out — times when there’s something in the air (fairy dust? a benevolent ghost?) that transforms a merely great performance into the kind that makes all your hairs stand on end. June 26, for those of us squeezed into folding chairs in a tiny brick room at the Manhattan Theatre Source, was one of those rare, goosebumpy nights.
It was two days after New York’s Marriage Equality Act had passed in the state legislature, and mere hours after the year’s particularly festive gay pride parade had sauntered past Washington Square. Bits of rainbow-colored confetti and stray streamers still littered the cobblestone streets. And there we were, in a funny old building on MacDougal Street — just blocks from the Stonewall Inn — watching a musical revue all about the history of Greenwich Village.
Courtesy lucetg.com/Centaur Theatre
In Montreal, not only can a musical about smoked meat be more than a gag, but “Schwartz’s: The Musical” is a $240,000 professional production. That’s around twice the usual cost of a play at the Centaur Theatre, where the show is playing until May 7.
Schwartz’s, a “Hebrew Delicatessen” founded in 1928, is a mecca for meat lovers, and its waiting line is as much of a trademark as the items on the menu. Clippings on the wall testify to the many celebrities who have passed through: Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Mick Jagger, and many sports and political figures (there’s even a running joke that eating at the diner ensures future Canadian prime ministers a majority government when they come into power — a pertinent theory seeing as Canadians are going to the polls on May 2).
The musical reads like a dream — albeit the dream you’d have falling asleep with the “Best of Broadway” playing on repeat after a night of beer and that smoked meat sandwich that seemed like a good idea at the time. Alternatively, it feels like a two-hour infomercial for the famed delicatessen.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Much has been written of late about the ways in which celebrated American musicals such as “Oklahoma” or “South Pacific” carry considerable Jewish freight. While most audiences come away humming rather than thinking, the American musical, many scholars suggest, is actually where American Jewish playwrights, lyricists, choreographers and designers set to rights their relationship to America.
But what of those on the other side of the footlights: the audience? I’ve always wondered what accounted for the longstanding affinity that so many American Jews, as well as their European counterparts, have had for the theater and the arts in general. Was this an accident of history? An artifact of demography? Or a deliberate strategy of modernization?
A recent article in the real estate section of The New York Times provides something of an answer.
Yesterday I was watching Nightly News with Brian Williams and was surprised to see that Sparky Anderson got a five-minute tribute but Jerry Bock, the beloved composer of “Fiddler on the Roof,” didn’t get a mention. I have a personal stake in this, as I write musicals and often worry about posterity. Mr. Bock leaves us 10 days after his collaborator, Joseph Stein, did, who wrote the book for “Fiddler,” based on Sholom Aleichem’s stories.
It’s hard now not to reflect a bit on this consummate Jewish musical, even if Brian Williams neglected to do so. In 2002 I served as a Steven Spielberg Fellow in Jewish Theatre Education, the goal of which, it was actually stated, was to move beyond “Fiddler on the Roof.” Ironically, I returned to the camp eight years later to direct the show. Thus I’m in the interesting position of first being sent in to destroy, and then to resurrect, “Fiddler” — not unlike Luke Skywalker with Darth Vader. And “Fiddler” was wheezing a bit when I held it this summer: My pre-teen cast didn’t know it since they hadn’t seen it on “Glee.”
Crossposted from Haaretz
This year marks the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, the American lyricist and composer who with his own two hands changed the face of the stage musical in the second half of the 20th century. During his more than 50 years of activity he has created a huge variety of works, in terms of both genre and supply of roles. The fact that he is still around (he is Jewish, though this is not especially evident in his work) gives producers additional incentive to put on his work.
A theater visit to London this month has turned into a Sondheim celebration for me. Concert versions of his works are underway in the city (including “Company,” featuring Adrian Lester — who already played Bobby, the bachelor who studies the lives of his married friends, in an excellent London production). And the intimate Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden — which for 17 years has consistently been putting on excellent productions that go on to conquer the West End, Broadway, Los Angeles, Australia and Brazil — is now staging a production of the musical “Passion,” which Sondheim adapted in 1984 from the film “Passione d’amore” by Italian director Ettore Scola. In honor of the production, Sondheim came to London and discussed his works before an audience in that same hall.