Jews on Broadway

Did you know that almost all of the great writers of the classic Broadway musical were Jewish? Therefore, it was only appropriate to dedicate a special gala evening with the Israeli mezzo-soprano Shai Terry and artists from the TOS Church Tübingen to this fact as part of the Jewish-Christian culture and encounter week “Hanukkah Days”. The program was developed and hosted by March of Life staff member Michaela Buckel, and in this interview she explains the background.

Is it true that many of the great musicals on Broadway were written by Jewish authors?

It is indeed striking that both the lyrics and the music of the most famous Broadway musicals were written by Jewish musicians, e.g. My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Sound of Music, Les Miserablés, Miss Saigon… the list could go on and on. If we now add Disney musicals, which are now also running as independent productions on Broadway, then we would have The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Sister Act.

How did you track down that fact?

I think it was in Les Miserablés, which is about the June Uprising in Paris in 1832, that I first stumbled across the lyrics. Of course the story is dramatic, but I had the feeling: there’s more to it! This must have been written by someone who knew loss, which is difficult to express. So I wanted to know the composer’s background. And in fact, both composers came from Jewish families, and half of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s family in Hungary was murdered in Auschwitz. Then I noticed more and more things and started researching the stories of the musical composers and lyricists. This brought on the idea of presenting these biographies along with the musicals.

Can you give us an example of such a classic biography of the musical authors?

Irving Berlin was born as Israel Beilin on May 11, 1888 in Tyumen, Siberia. However, his family lived in the Tolokhin shtetl in present-day Belarus. He was one of eight children of Moses and Lena Lipkin Beilin. His father was a cantor in a synagogue until a pogrom occurred in the shtetl. Irving only remembered having to hide in a box and watching as their house burned to the ground. The family then emigrated to America. Upon their arrival, Israel was put in a pen with his brother and five sisters until immigration officials approved them for entry into the city. His father, unable to find comparable work as a cantor in New York, took a job in a kosher meat market, teaching Hebrew on the side to support his family.

With only a few years of schooling, eight-year-old Irving now began contributing to his family’s living expenses. Because the family was so poor, he lived as a street boy on the Lower East Side, picking up the language and culture of ghetto life. He became a paperboy and delivered the Evening Journal. Young Berlin sang some of the songs he heard while selling newspapers from the clubs and people tossed him a few coins. Music became his best source of income. In exchange, Berlin taught himself to play the piano a little. Since he played by ear, he took only the black keys for simplicity’s sake; he played almost exclusively in the key of F#.

The former street urchin was well on his way to becoming a well-known composer, and this despite the fact that he could neither read music nor play the piano properly. He composed his melodies, others wrote down the notes for him. In his long life of 101 years, he wrote over 1000 songs, most of which are jazz standards and have had a lasting impact on American music. In addition to seventeen complete scores for Broadway musicals, he contributed material to six others and also composed for Hollywood. Even before World War II, his song “God Bless America” became the unofficial anthem of the United States.

Another classic is his song “White Christmas,” which sold many millions of copies. Berlin celebrated his greatest success in 1946 with the musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” about the U.S. markswoman Annie Oakley.

Most musicals do not deal with specifically Jewish themes. Why did it take so long for an obviously Jewish musical like Anatevka to be possible?

Although many of the writers were at home in the Yiddish theater in New York – especially those whose families were fairly new to the U.S. – they naturally wanted to appeal to a broad audience. That’s the prerequisite for success: playing what speaks to many. Also, they didn’t want to make music primarily as European Jews.

They considered themselves Americans and wanted to be perceived as such. Almost all of them Americanized their names. Nevertheless, they formed a network of Jewish producers, lyricists, composers and choreographers. I think they had more in common than they realized, and trust played an important role.

In addition, many had experienced anti-Semitism – also in the USA. That’s why they worked on the themes of exclusion, injustice and the question of identity on the basis of other marginalized groups, e.g. blacks or immigrants from Latin America. Anatevka tells the story of an Eastern European shtetl where a pogrom is perpetrated that drives the inhabitants to emigrate. This is the family history of some of the musicians – it takes a lot of courage to spotlight it! But Anatevka became a huge worldwide success. By 1979, it was the longest running musical on Broadway, with over 3000 performances, and it opened the doors for more Jewish stories that appealed not just to a minority, but to every culture and generation!

Thank you for the interview!

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