by John F. Karr
It's typically Jewish of a documentary celebrating the contribution of Jews to Broadway to ask, "Why?" It's not particularly Jewish to receive for an answer not much more than, "Why not?" So while the title Broadway Musicals – A Jewish Legacy seems to give Jews the somewhat deserved credit for the perpetuation of the Broadway musical, the documentary doesn't intend to answer such a basic question. It gives a little lip service to Broadway as a refuge for outsiders, and a place to discuss assimilation. Then it skips gaily on to survey the careers of a select group of Jews, with a parade of famous names who tell good stories and illustrate how their Jewish sound-world was transferred into popular music. That Fiddler on the Roof theme? Borrowed (nearly plagiarized) from a Yiddish folk song!
Though it's a cliche that most of B'way's composers and lyricists have been Jewish, actual statistics aren't plentiful, a hole A Jewish Legacy should have filled. The website Jinfo.org calculates that 66% of Tony-winning composers were Jewish, 68% of lyricists, and 55% of librettists. I scrambled around for some non-Jews, but was stumped beyond Leroy Anderson, Vernon Duke and Noel Coward.
Broadway Musicals – A Jewish Legacy was broadcast on PBS, and has now been released on DVD (Acorn Media, $39.99). I enjoyed the rare and delightful snippets of archival footage it includes. Although it too frequently illustrates Broadway with clips from Hollywood, we're taken both on- and backstage at Wicked, La Cage, the original Gypsy and other shows. Yet it's disappointing that the documentary doesn't strive to be more than anecdotal. It has a constricted range, focusing on a handful of names: Berlin, Bernstein, Styne, lots of Rodgers and Hammerstein (who wasn't Jewish, but whose immediate forebears were), Bock & Harnick, and Herman. Some Kander, some Schwartz, with Marc Shaiman and Maury Yeston as frequent talking heads to analyze the work of other Jews, without their own being mentioned. I guess it's enough they're Jewish.
The show is casual about context and is hardly comprehensive, neglecting decades of Jews: Sigmund Romberg, Arlen, Cy Coleman, Lane, Rome, both Dietz and Schwartz, Loesser, Adler and Ross, Ashman and Menken, and did you know they were Jewish, Rupert Holmes and Anthony Newley. With the exception of Shaiman, contemporary Jews seem to have dropped off the map. There's not a mention of Lippa, Yazbeck, LaChiusa, Gordon, Hamlisch, Parker & Stone, Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, or even Frank Wildhorn (although any group that would wanna claim his kinship is mishuga).
Look at that last list. All of them gay but the Book of Mormon guys. A better question might have been, Why are so many of these Jews gay? The makers of Broadway Musicals would say that's another documentary. It's one that might give some of the same answers, although hopefully in greater depth. I'm surprised by the lack of gay names on Broadway previous to the current bumper crop. For the dozen gays I can name, I easily thought of more than several dozen who weren't gay, starting with both Gerswhins, all three of DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, and sweeping on through Weill, Jones & Schmidt, Parker and Stone, and Adam Guettel (although, with the middle name Millie, you might suspect Vincent Youmans).
So, buy or rent A Jewish Legacy? In trading off scholarship for celebration, the fairly lightweight show discourages repeat viewings. But a couple of other elements make ownership of the package more enticing. It's nicely put together. There's a fairly substantial booklet in which the show's producers offer a more precise summation of the Why? than the show itself. And here's the keeper. On a second disc, there are three hours of stories not heard in the show from 26 people, some of whom didn't make it past the editor. Like Hal David, and particularly Theodore Bikel (do I need to identify him as the original Captain von Trapp?), who "refutes" The Sound of Music and dishes its cast. And who wouldn't want extended time with Sondheim, Prince, Kander, Yeston and even Jamie Bernstein, who could tell entertaining stories about her father for weeks.