Fascinating, new PBS documentary explores Jewish contributions to Broadway; Performances by Barbra Streisand, Matthew Broderick,…
BROADWAY MUSICALS: A JEWISH LEGACY Is A Must Have DVD For Your Collection
Broadway Musicals; A Jewish Legacy is a must see for two reasons. First, it features interviews with some of the most prolific musical theater composers and lyricists ever to set pen to paper and the process of how they create their art. Secondly, and more importantly, is that for the first time a documentary delves into why the Great White Way was (as is) dominated by Jewish Americans and its representation of creative freedom.
Athena has now released a 2-disc DVD that originally aired as part of the sensational PBS series American Masters. The first disc features the documentary itself, narrated by Joel Grey, with rarely seen interviews and performances from some of Broadway’s greatest creative talents including Ethel Merman, Barbra Streisand, Danny Kaye, Al Jolson, Zero Mostel and Fanny Brice. More importantly, you get to see the composers and lyricists themselves perform the works they created. The also explore the religious influences in the music structure itself.
Spanning a fifty-year period, we get to see first hand how these immigrants found salvation in the theater and thus created the Great American Songbook. The stories are heartbreaking, humorous and inspiring. Each composer paves the way for the next, leaving a groundbreaking Broadway musical in their wake. None is more interesting then the story of Kurt Weill (Threepenny Opera), who with his wife Lotte Lenya, left Germany and came to America the same day Hitler took “office”. Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is then examined with the song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” viewed as far ahead of its time in its look racial prejudice.
We also get to see the evolution of Bernstein’s West Side Story (originally East Side Story focusing on Jews vs Gentiles); The casting of Streisand as Fanny Brice; and a hilarious story of Ethel Merman bringing a ham sandwich to Julie Stein’s Seder. Then Fiddler hits the stage and in its ethnicity, finds common ground in tradition and paves the way for Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, which has a main character based on Weill’s wife and is the first musical to deal with the third Reich.
Most touching of all is the story of Charles Strouse who talks about being tied up to a tree when he was a young boy while having to watch his brother being beaten. Out of that emotional turmoil comes the songs “Put On a Happy Face” (Bye, Bye Birdie) and “Tomorrow” (Annie) both of which we get to see Strouse sing. If that doesn’t tear you up, nothing will. The modern day musical is then looked at with Sondehim, Schwartz, Shaiman, and Yeston with respect of what and who paved their way always center stage.
Luckily, I too have gotten to personally interview many of these composers, including Mr. Strouse, Mr. Harnick, Mr. Herman, Mr. Yeston and my friend Andrew Lippa. There is a definitely a commonality of spirit between all of them. They all have a devout love of musical theatre, they are each gracious humanitarians in their own right. It is those qualities that I have come to know and they shine through in this amazing documentary.
The DVD 2-Disc set includes a bonus disc with three hours of bonus performances and interviews not seen on PBS, a 16-page viewer’s guide, and more ($39.99, AcornOnline.com).