– From Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim, and from Fanny Brice to Barbra Streisand, the film explores the
phenomenon of how Jewish-American songwriters created a uniquely American art form –
As Sir Robin carols merrily to King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot, “In any great
adventure, if you don’t want to lose…you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”
Eric Idle’s cheeky lyric, which unfailingly generated knowing guffaws from Broadway
audiences, proves to be more than a little grounded in truth, as Broadway Musicals: A Jewish
Legacy convincingly attests.
This new 90-minute documentary by Michael Kantor, creator of the Emmy-winning series,
Broadway: The American Musical, airs on
Tuesday, January 1st at 8:30pm on WTVP-Public Media for Central Illinois.
Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, one of America’s most
prolific and respected public media providers. For 50 years, THIRTEEN has been making the most of the
rich resources and passionate people of New York and the world, reaching millions of people with
on-air and online programming that celebrates arts and culture, offers insightful commentary on the
news of the day, explores the worlds of science and nature, and invites students of all ages to have
fun while learning.
Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy – narrated by Joel Grey -- explores the
unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical. Featuring
interviews and conversations with some of the greatest composers and writers of the Broadway stage,
Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy showcases the work of some of the nation’s pre-eminent
creators of musical theatre including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart,
Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Kurt Weill, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen
Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jule Styne and many others.
Though these remarkable songwriters were purveyors of what we think of today as the Broadway
sound, the documentary demonstrates how there were echoes of Jewish strains in many of the works. From
“Yiddishkeit” (all things Jewish) on the stages of the Lower East Side at the turn of the century to a
wide range of shows including Porgy and Bess, West Side Story and Cabaret, the film
explores how Jewish music and ethos informs many of America’s favorite musicals.
Dynamic footage includes performances by stars such as David Hyde Pierce (Spamalot),
Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara (Nice Work if You Can Get It), Zero Mostel (Fiddler on the
Roof), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town), Nathan Lane (The Producers), Al Jolson
(Sinbad), Fanny Brice (The Great Ziegfeld), Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Joel Grey
(Cabaret), Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie), Danny Kaye (Lady in the Dark), Ethel Merman
(Gypsy), and Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (Wicked).
The film is the first of its kind to examine the phenomenon that, over the 50-year period
of its development, the songs of the Broadway musical were created almost exclusively by Jewish Americans.
These are the popular songs that our nation took to war, sang to their children at bedtime, and whistled
while waiting for the bus; taken in total they comprise the vast majority of what is now commonly referred
to as “The American Songbook.”
As historian Phil Furia cites as just one vivid example, Irving Berlin had so assimilated
that he went on to “write the most popular Christmas song, ‘White Christmas’…and the most popular Easter song,
‘Easter Parade.’ It’s the Horatio Alger story told in Yiddish.” Berlin’s “God Bless America” became so popular,
it nearly replaced the National Anthem.
While Jewish Americans certainly abounded in other areas of the musical theater, their
predominance in the area of songwriting was nearly complete, with only the Episcopalian Cole Porter represented
as a major figure in the pantheon of America’s greatest composers of Broadway songs. And even Porter, after three
Broadway flops, finally ascertained the surefire way to success: “I’m going to write Jewish tunes.” As Andrew
Lippa, the composer/lyricist of The Addams Family, points out in the film, “Porgy and Bess and
Show Boat and Oklahoma! These are ideas that are fictions. What do we make America into? How do
we take what we know and make it into America?”
The film features interviews with Arthur Laurents, Sheldon Harnick, John Kander, Andrew Lippa,
Stephen Schwartz, Phyllis Newman, Charles Strouse, Harold Prince, Maury Yeston, Mary Rodgers Guettel, Ernie
Harburg, Marc Shaiman, David Shire, Stephen Sondheim, Mel Brooks and many others.
Rare clips include Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America,” rehearsals for Jule Styne and
Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, and original South Pacific star William Tabbert singing “You’ve Got to
be Carefully Taught” with Richard Rodgers at the piano.
The film was produced, written, and directed by Michael Kantor, whose Broadway: The American
Musical series was originally viewed by an estimated 15 million people, and won the 2005 Primetime Emmy
Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series. Most recently, Kantor was executive producer of Give Me the Banjo
hosted by Steve Martin, and one of the producers of “The Thomashefskys” with Michael Tilson Thomas (Great
Performances March 28, 2012). Kantor created Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, the
Emmy-nominated six-part documentary series hosted by Billy Crystal that debuted on PBS in January 2009. Other PBS
credits include writer, director and producer of “Quincy Jones: In the Pocket” for American Masters, and
producer of The West for PBS (Executive Producer Ken Burns).
Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy is an Albert M. Tapper production, and
Barbara Brilliant is creator and executive producer. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is
series producer, and David Horn is executive producer.
Major funding for this program was provided by the Patty and Jay Baker Foundation, Judith
B. Resnick, the Blavatnik Family Foundation, The Barbara and Buddy Freitag Family Fund, The Laurents / Hatcher
Foundation, The National Museum of American Jewish History, The Ira and Leonore Gershwin Philanthropic
Fund, The Shubert Organization, The Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation, and The Raymond Tye and Family
Major funding for Great Performances is provided by the Irene Diamond Fund, The National
Endowment for the Arts, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Vivian Milstein, The Agnes Varis Trust, the
Starr Foundation, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, and PBS viewers.
Corporate support is provided by Stuart Weitzman and Family.
Visit Great Performances online at
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