If your local PBS station is still showing the Great Performances episode “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy”, sit your ass down and watch it. It’s great. I stumbled across it last night, but I don’t know how much longer it’s going to be in circulation.
“Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” which airs New Year’s night on PBS (that’s PBS SoCal, for local viewers) as part of its “Great Performances” series, shares again the great open secret that American culture is to a great extent Jewish culture. More particularly, it points out the strain of Hebraic melody and rhythm in what we think of as the most mainstream popular music: the Broadway show tune.
Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Kurt Weill, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, Jerry Herman, Strouse and Adams, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz. To comprehend the degree to which this ethnic minority created a common national (even a Gentile) language, you only have to consider that the scores to “Show Boat,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “West Side Story,” “Godspell,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Wicked” were all by Jews, and that Berlin wrote the essential Christmas song, “White Christmas,” the essential “Easter song, “Easter Parade,” and the essential patriotic song, “God Bless America,” in whose melody Maury Yeston (“Nine”) discovers cantorial echoes.
Heck, the “cantorial echoes” are everywhere! Listen to this, and imagine the text in Hebrew and the occasion a bar mitzvah:
Even the single greatest exception to the Jewish rule, Cole Porter, succeeded only when he started to “write Jewish”—as he himself admitted:
Porter told Richard Rodgers he had worked out the secret to it: He would write Jewish tunes. That this is exactly what he did is demonstrated by a variety of composers at their pianos. But it’s enough to run “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” or any of his other minor-key classics through your head to hear that it’s true.
Technically, Oscar Hammarstein wasn’t Jewish either. His mother was Scottish and English, and he was raised Episcopalian. But his paternal grandfather, after whom he was named, was a German-Jewish impresario.
Even so many of the great Broadway performers, from Al Jolson to Barbra Streisand, were Jewish.
One of the most interesting themes of the show was how the composers and lyricists were influenced by the Jewish experience in America, even if they largely disguised it. Some changed their names (Jacob Gershvin to George Gershwin, Hyman Arluck to Harold Arlen, for example); some used transference. Issues of race and intolerance, from Showboat to South Pacific, came up in their work, though never directly about anti-Semitism.
Until Fiddler on the Roof, of course, in 1964, and Cabaret, in 1966. (West Side Story would have beat them both by about 15 years if it had been completed along its original lines, as East Side Story, about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy.)
Anyhow, fascinating and illuminating. I already knew that this most American of genres, the stage musical, was largely created by Jews. It was a revelation to learn how Jewish this most American of genres is.
I should have listened to Monty Python: