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Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

By Linda Arntzenius

Illustrations by Jorge Naranjo

“You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews,” Eric Idle’s clever quip from Monty Python’s Spamalot never fails to elicit laughter from a Broadway audience. It’s long been taken for granted that the Broadway musical is a particularly Jewish success story. Idle’s observation was expressed decades earlier by none other than Cole Porter, the exemplar of Broadway song composers. Porter, who was not Jewish, was once asked how he would go about writing “American” music. “I’ll write good Jewish tunes,” he said.

Michael Kantor’s recent documentary, The Broadway Musical—A Jewish Legacy, celebrates the Jewish roots of this distinctly American form with a loving look at 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, and Jule Styne, among many other giants of the Broadway stage.

That Jewish musicians played such an important creative role on Broadway should come as no surprise when you consider the rich influences that go back to Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, to Tin Pan Alley and to the traditions of New York’s Yiddish theater. The contributions to the Broadway musical and to what is now called, The Great American Songbook, by the offspring of Jewish immigrants to the United States at the turn of the 20th century is undeniable, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, George M. Cohan, Walter Donaldson, Jimmy McHugh, and Johnny Mercer, notwithstanding.

Just think of the popular songs that almost every American can hum, even if they might be unclear of the words or of a song’s origins. Irving Berlin’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and “God Bless America” spring to mind. The latter is more popular than the National Anthem, which some contend it should replace.


Kantor’s 90-minute documentary looks at the history that made the Broadway musical fertile ground for Jewish artists of all kinds. Combining interviews with performance footage, he reveals echoes of Jewish traditional and liturgical melody in works such as Porgy and Bess (music by George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, 1935), West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, 1957) and Cabaret (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, 1966). One example is George Gershwin’s melody to his brother Ira’s lyrics in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which has its origins in a chant intoned with the Hebrew words “Bar’chu et adonai ham’vorach” before a reading from the Torah.

Kantor, who also made the Emmy Award-winning Broadway: The American Musical and The Thomashefskys with Michael Tilson Thomas, both part of the PBS Great Performances Series, demonstrates how “Yiddishkeit” (all things Jewish) from turn of the century stages of the Lower East Side informs many of America’s favorite musicals.

Narrated by Joel Grey, The Broadway Musical—A Jewish Legacy is rich with interviews. You’ll find references to the contemporary and the historic—Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, Betty Comden and Adolph Green in On the Town, Nathan Lane in The Producers, Al Jolson in Sinbad, Fanny Brice in The Great Ziegfeld, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Joel Grey in Cabaret, and Ethel Merman in Gypsy. Rare film clips show Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America,” and rehearsals for Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. Richard Rodgers can be seen and heard at the piano with the original stage star of South Pacific, William Tabbert, singing “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”


No one is exactly sure how “Tin Pan Alley” got its name. According to legend, “tin pan” captures the cacophony of sound made by numerous song peddlers as they plunked out tunes on less than first rate upright pianos (“old joannas”). And that seems like a good bet. A sidewalk plaque on West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue commemorates the fact that around 1885, music publishers and song-pluggers were hired to promote sales of sheet music—the method by which popular songs entered the market place in the days before recorded sound began setting up shop on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Ultimately, the name came to refer to the music business as a whole.

Tin Pan Alley’s beginnings coincided with a mass immigration of East European Jews to New York City in the early 1880s. Its heyday, around the time of World War I, was also a time when African Americans were moving North from the Southern states. Jewish and African American culture came together in the burgeoning city.

As Rachel Rubin, professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, points out in her essay, “Way Down Upon the Hudson River: Tin Pan Alley’s New York Triumph,” Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Harold Arlen and other sons of Jewish European immigrants, were key Tin Pan Alley figures influenced not only by their own ancestry, but also “intimately wound up with their relationships to actual African Americans and with the sights and sounds of blackness.”

Their work, says Rubin, was heir to a tradition going back to Stephen Foster and popular 19th century minstrel shows. The syncopated rhythms of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River,” and Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Stormy Weather,” borrow from jazz to create a distinctive American sound.

George Gershwin put it like this: “I’d like to write of the melting pot, of New York City itself. This would allow for many kinds of music—black and white, Eastern and Western and would call for a style that should achieve, out of this diversity, an artistic unity.”

Such songs formed the musical accompaniment to an era of change. The early part of the 20th century saw women roles transformed (along with their hair and hemlines). Social and racial divides were relaxed in speakeasies, jazz clubs and music halls.

As Rubin points out, “Tin Pan Alley” also meant a style of music tending initially toward ethnic novelty songs and later, in the ‘classic’ period (from the mid-1920s on), toward 32-bar love songs relying heavily on internal rhymes and punning in the use of language. These are the songs that provided fodder for Broadway’s early musical revues.


Over time, as song sheets gave way to recorded sound, and vaudeville gave way to the musical revue, a new genre emerged. Showboat, written in 1927 by the successful Tin Pan alley songwriters Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, is regarded as the first fully-developed musical. Kern supplied the music and Hammerstein, the lyrics, with, oddly enough, a bit of help from P.G. Wodehouse. With a beginning-to-end narrative plot instead of a series of songs with some segue dialog thrown in between, Showboat was the beginning of the end for the light operettas and follies-style reviews that had gone before. In the history of Broadway, it’s described as “a watershed.” Sandwiched between George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and 1935 “folk opera” Porgy and Bess, Showboat handles the serious issues of racial prejudice and tragic love with songs that made fresh by contemporary singers today; classics like “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine.”

Based on Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel of the same name, the musical follows the lives of performers, stagehands, and dock workers on a Mississippi River boat, The Cotton Blossom, over four decades from 1887 to 1927.

It’s interesting to note that Showboat came out on Broadway in the same year that Broadway performer Al Jolson belted out “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” in Hollywood’s first talking picture, The Jazz Singer. Things would never be the same again.

In 1930, Harvard professor Isaac Goldberg wrote the first serious academic examination of the American music business. He titled the book: Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket. Goldman used the word “racket” to deliberately convey the slightly derogatory reputation that Tin Pan Alley and Broadway had in the popular imagination. More than seven decades later that perception is gone. As Michael Kantor’s documentaries make clear, the Broadway Musical has been elevated to American icon status.


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