– 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 90-minute documentary by Michael Kantor, creator of the Emmy-winning series,
Broadway: The American Musical, airs on Great Performances Sunday, June 2nd at 6:00pm
on WTVP-HD 47.1.
Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, one of America’s
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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
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,
Stephen Schwartz 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.
For complete list of programs, air times and membership Thank You gifts. [Click Here]
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 Charitable Trust
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
Corporate support is provided by Stuart Weitzman and Family.
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