“Act One,” Moss Hart’s inspirational memoir, is the story of the son of Jewish immigrants who found and successfully pursued his passion for theater despite — or because of — his family’s impoverished circumstances.
Hart’s muse was his Aunt Kate, an eccentric woman who encouraged his love of theater, where he found “a refuge for an unhappy child … a scrawny, poor kid with bad teeth, a funny name and a mother who was a drudge.”
In addition to abject poverty, Hart had a difficult relationship with both of his parents, particularly his father, who forced him to quit school after the eighth grade to work and contribute to the family coffers.
Still, he managed to become one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights (“You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, and “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), Broadway directors (the original “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot”) and screenwriters (“A Gentleman’s Agreement,” “A Star is Born”).
Hart died unexpectedly at age 59, so he never had a chance to write a second chapter to his memoir incorporating many of these achievements. Still, those early years provided more than enough drama for a successful play — or at least they should have.
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.
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?
In 1939, Cuba’s Batista government, in collaboration with the government of the United States, delayed a ship called the SS St. Louis, which carried 937 Jewish-German refugees, in the Havana harbor. Despite assurances that they would be granted asylum, the refugees were told that they could not enter Cuba without a visa. Twenty-two were eventually allowed to come ashore. The rest were sent back to Germany, where they were interned at Mechelen and put to death.
This shameful event in the history of American-Cuban relations provides the back-story for “Sotto Voce,” the new play written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, now running at Theater for the New City. The play follows a young Cuban-Jewish student, an aspiring writer named Saquiel Rafaeli (Andhy Mendez), who has come to New York City to track down the acclaimed German novelist Bemadette Kahn (Franca Sofia Barchiesi) after discovering that she was once the lover Ariel Strauss, one of the passengers on the SS St. Louis. After gradually earning her trust, and seducing her sassy but sentimental illegal immigrant housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (played by Arielle Jacobs, whose model good looks belie the play’s descriptions of her as plain and possibly overweight), he unlocks Bemadette’s repressed memories the war and the role her family played in Strauss’s death.
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 Jewish people’s “right of return” is a cornerstone of Zionist philosophy, and was enshrined into law shortly after the creation of the State of Israel. According to this principle, any Jew from around the world can relocate to Israel and become a citizen.
Playwright Israel Horovitz’s “Lebensraum” — currently being revived in Los Angeles by the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company — opens with an outrageous twist on this tenet. As the German Chancellor wakes from a dream, he decides to invite six million Jews to move to and live in Germany.
The “Fatherland,” indeed. The Chancellor’s offer sends shockwaves across contemporary Germany, as well as wherever dispersed Jewry dwells, from Europe to America to Australia to Israel and beyond. Jews begin to trickle in and then flock to avail themselves of the Chancellor’s seemingly generous proposal. But there are some, including members of a Jewish Defense League-type group from Israel, who smell a rat and suspect that the 1,000 year Reich is up to its old tricks. They believe the German invitation is really an insidious ruse to finish the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Add to this combustible concoction unemployed Aryans who, amidst an economic downturn, must compete for limited jobs and resources with a formerly despised minority who are now being given preferential treatment — in what could be their millions.
Photo Credit: Caideco Productions
For 20-plus years, the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival has been one of L.A.’s top theater events, highlighting multi-cultural female performers for the live stage. This year, LAWTF — which begins properly on March 27 — is being preceded over three February weekends at the Fremont Centre Theatre by “From the Best of the Fest,” a selection of the finest performances by solo performing women artists who have previously presented their work during the Festival’s 20-year span. It is serendipitous that on February 6 the very first piece to kick off this “Best of the Fest” happens to be my favorite act I’ve ever encountered at LAWTF: Sariyah Idan’s breathtaking “Homeless in Homeland.”
In this riveting one-woman show, the protean Idan (formerly known as Saria Idana) morphs into about 17 Jewish, Palestinian, male and female characters, ranging from childhood to old age, as she explores the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What’s a progressive young Jew to do when the oppressed appear to have become the oppressor? To find out Idan, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including to a refugee camp and other sites in the West Bank. Unlike Dorothy, she may not have gone over the rainbow, but the dancer and actress encountered a divided realm every bit as strange as Oz.
A few months ago, thanks in part to The Forward, I became aware of a controversy at Theater J. An organization housed within the Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), the theater had announced its 2013-2014 season, which was to include a production of “The Admission” by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner.
Key to this play are contrasting and layered Israeli and Palestinian narratives about what happened in an Arab village during the 1948 war for Israeli independence. Arguing that by staging this play Theater J, the DCJCC, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington were “promoting a discredited and defamatory lie against Israel,” a committee called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) implemented an energetic and public campaign against it.
I confess that the merest hint of anti-Israel sentiment can set me on edge, even (perhaps especially) when that sentiment appears to come from my coreligionists. In this instance, my immediate reaction was to sympathize with COPMA’s argument that Federation (or other Jewish community-sourced) funds should not go to disparaging, demonizing, or delegitimizing the Jewish state. But without having read or seen “The Admission” for myself, I couldn’t be certain that the play was guilty as COPMA had charged it.
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?
“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?
“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?
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.
Woody Guthrie sang of America’s “redwood forests” and “gulf stream waters.” The traveling troubadour and American folk poet electrified a nation with his paeans to America’s indomitable spirit and beauty.
Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, he also ignited mighty debates with songs and writings that took on the establishment and sought to elevate the working masses. His guitar bore the message: “This machine kills fascists.” And he even has a Jewish connection, that lives on in some of his music and his ideals.
His baldly patriotic hymn to his country, “This Land Is Your Land,” features a stanza that states: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
Guthrie’s songs, spirit and life have been brought to the stage in a 90-minute musical biography written and performed by actor and musician David Lutken. His “Woody Sez,” developed with Nick Corley, tells the singer/songwriter’s story in song.
“Growing up in Texas I learned a lot of folk songs that had to do with the West and with America,” Lutken said. “Woody Guthrie was right in there. I didn’t know at the time when I was singing his ‘Take Me Riding in the Car Car’ when I was 5 that that was job training.” The show premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007 and has since toured the U.S. and beyond. It returns to Washington, D.C.’s Theater J through December 14 and then moves to Milwaukee Repertory Theater in January.
“Lies My Father Told Me” is one of the most ambitious productions in the 99-year history of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene. The musical has a large and extremely talented cast of 17. It features an innovative, Broadway-caliber set (by John C. Dining). And it has a long and storied history, both as an award-winning film and a play with music.
“Lies” is based on the autobiographical works of Ted Allan, a Canadian writer, who grew up in a poor Montreal neighborhood in the 1920s. His doppelgänger here is David Herman, who lives with his grandfather and parents.
Young David (Alex Dreier, definitely a star in the making) is caught between his beloved Tevye-like Zaida (Chuck Karel) and his father, Harry (Jonathan Raviv).
Zaida is a junk man, who takes David with him on his Sunday rounds, regaling him with Jewish stories and wisdom along the way. Harry fancies himself more modern and constantly belittles the older man and his beliefs.
If the inter-generational battle between religion and secular had been the central plot line, it would have been sufficiently involving. But Harry is also mean and delusional, blinded by ambition and always coming up with hair-brained schemes to make money. If that’s not enough, he’s also — at least by contemporary standards — abusive to his wife and son.
“Every Day a Visitor” is a play about seniors living — no, make that confined — in a faded Bronx nursing home. They have no family, friends or, very soon, an audience nearby.
Based on a short story by playwright Richard Abrons and presented off-Broadway a dozen years ago, the play tells the story of seven residents in a home that, as one resident describes it, “is not how I pictured ending up.”
The home has seen better days, when it was filled with people. Now it’s just these seven residents subsisting on a meagre diet and few activities.
An attendant suggests that the seven can improve their spirits and empower themselves by assuming the persona of famous individuals. So soon we have a would-be LaGuardia, Bella Abzug, and Kissinger strutting around the stage. Moreover, the most withdrawn and ill of them assumes the role of president.
His first edict is that if one is hospitalized, someone from the group would visit him or her every day. For some reason, their play-acting energizes the group, and even makes them nicer to each other — though why this happens is never clear.
After watching the excellent production of “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” at Manhattan’s West End Theatre, my first thought was that someone had handed playwright Mark St. Germain (creator of “Freud’s Last Session”) a gimme.
On the face of it, all Germain had to do was stick a microphone in front of the voluble sex therapist, transcribe her words, and there you have it: a play.
Because what a rich life she’s lived, filled with sadness and joy and the drama that makes great theater.
To his credit, Germain resisted the temptation to turn this into the burlesque it could easily have become. Nor does he dwell on the moments of pathos. Instead he does a delicate balancing act, effortlessly shifting between the ups and downs and taking the audience with him.
It’s the same approach smartly taken by star Debra Jo Rupp (“That ‘70s Show”), rrrrrolling her Rs, of course, German accent intact, but never reducing her role to a parody.
The play is set in 1997, a little more than two months after the unexpected death of Dr. Ruth’s third husband, Fred. She is cleaning out her Washington Heights apartment because, despite its spectacular views of the New Jersey Palisades across the Hudson River and of the George Washington and Tappen Zee Bridges, despite the objections of both her children, she feels she needs to move on.
(Reuters) — Anthony Weiner, the New York City mayoral candidate undone by a sexting scandal, stands in a schoolyard — the butt of his classmates’ jokes. A chorus of reporters breaks out into a sexually charged dance number during a Weiner press conference.
A new play about the misbegotten campaign of Weiner, the former Congressman whose political ambitions were crushed by revelations he sent women lewd pictures of himself, is based on actual texts and modeled on Greek tragedy.
The play, “The Weiner Monologues,” opens on November 6 — one day after New Yorkers go to the polls to elect the city’s next mayor.
“It’s about this very familiar story of one man’s hubris leading to his downfall,” said Jonathan Harper Schlieman, 27, who conceived the play along with fellow theater major John Oros, 23, for their senior project at Hunter College in Manhattan.
“The Weiner Monologues” examines the role of the public and the media as actors in the drama. It is based on transcripts of conversations Weiner had with women over social media that the women then leaked to the press, articles about the scandal and Weiner’s news conferences immortalized on YouTube.
“It’s the Heisenberg principle: The act of observation changes the thing being observed,” said Schlieman, who is also the play’s director.
Kathryn Grody is besieged.
The actress, on her way home after a recent preview performance of “The Model Apartment,” hadn’t made it out of the lobby when several audience members waylaid her. What happened next is both a tribute to Donald Margulies’ play and to Grody.
The play is intense and at times difficult to watch. Max (Mark Blum) and Lola (Grody) are survivors — she of the camps, he hiding in the woods. They’ve left Brooklyn for a new development in Florida, but arrived before their apartment was ready. So the developer puts them up in a model apartment where all the appliances are fake.
As they fled the Nazis they now flee from their daughter, who is obese and emotionally disturbed, but who somehow manages to get out of the institution where she lives and find them. She’s soon followed by her much younger and also troubled African-American boyfriend.
“The Model Apartment” is about many things, including the impact of the Shoah on the children of survivors. But much of what happens is open to the interpretation of audience members. Which is why the ladies hung around after the show to discuss what they’d seen and approach Grody on her way out.
Grody patiently answered all of their questions and more. As she told The Arty Semite several days later, “I ended up going out with one of the women. I continued to talk on the sidewalk with her. I was going to take a taxi home and was going to give her a lift if she lived on the West Side. But she lived on the East Side, so we started walking towards 84th Street. And when we got there I told her I was going to get a bite to eat. I didn’t get home until one in the morning. I’m sending her a Haggadah; Mandy [Patinkin, her husband] and I made our own Passover Haggadah and I’m putting that in the mail to her.”
During the rest of a telephone interview, Grody spoke about her take on the play, why no one thinks she’s Jewish and who cleans her kitchen.
Curt Schleier: This is a very uncomfortable play.
Despite a highly successful playwriting career, Donald Margulies has not had much luck with “The Model Apartment.” For convoluted reasons the 30-year-old play has not yet enjoyed a fully successful production in New York. Ironically, when Primary Stages produced the work in 1995, critics were enthusiastic and the play won an OBIE. But it folded quickly when the lead actor jumped ship.
The play, opening October 15, is now being given a new lease on life. Primary Stages is reviving the dark comedy about aging Holocaust survivors, whose inability to deal with their own tortured history has shaped their grown daughter’s troubled life.
Margulies believes the zeitgeist is right for the play. Perhaps it’s taken three decades for audiences simply to “accept a post-modern take on the Holocaust,” he speculated during a phone interview from his New Haven home. “We’ve now had Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ and Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus.’ This is ‘Oy Vey!’ humor. It’s irreverent. Previously, the play might have seemed untouchable.”
“This is not a sentimental play,” he continued. “It’s just the opposite. I’m demystifying the Holocaust by bringing the enormity of the event into a prosaic setting. Max and Lola are once again fleeing. But this time, they’re fleeing from their daughter. The challenge is to demystify without being disrespectful. I love all the characters.”
Set in the 1980s, the Holocaust couple (played by Mark Blum and Kathryn Grody) takes refuge in an ill-functioning but perfectly appointed model apartment in Florida. When their morbidly obese daughter and her African-American boyfriend (Diane Davis and Hubert Point-Du Jour) surface shortly thereafter, the already dysfunctional family spirals out of control. They all suffer from distorted memories that evoke nightmarish imagery.