Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, the new PBS documentary scheduled to air on January 1, explores the unique role of Jewish composers and lyricists in the creation of the modern American musical. Narrated by Joel Grey, the 90-minute documentary features interviews and conversations with some of the great composers and writers of the Broadway stage.
Among those interviewed is Stuart J. Hecht, a local theater scholar and author of Transposing Broadway: Jews, Assimilation, and the American Musical. Hecht, who is Associate Professor of Theatre at Boston College and a member of Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill, posits that Jewish musical theater artists – from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim and beyond – have developed in the past century a form that corresponds directly to the concerns and aspiration of Jews trying to assimilate into American life.
“There was a major migration of Jews to America in the late nineteenth century,” Hecht noted, “and the entertainment industry was one of the few avenues that were open to Jews. This led to a proliferation of careers in the arts and the emergence of noted Jewish composers and lyricists such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein Jr. Irving Berlin was the son of a cantor whose quest for assimilation led him to write songs such as White Christmas and Easter Parade.
“Jews were very interested in attending musical theater. The American musical grew out of the vaudeville, minstrel and operetta traditions. In the early years of the twentieth century, Yiddish theater was thriving and we saw the emergence of Jerome Kern’s ‘Princess shows,’ named after the Princess Theatre in New York, which in turn led to book musicals like Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls. These shows, which integrated songs with stories of everyday Americans in everyday situations, resonated with the children of Jewish immigrants who were aspiring to achieve the American Dream.
“Significant here is Oscar Hammerstein, who developed what I would call a ‘template’ for musicals that, over the years, increasingly introduced ethnic characters in Broadway’s American settings, and conversely also projected the vision of an inclusive American on stage. Hammerstein’s legacy is evident in recent Broadway shows where members of various minority groups seek acceptance into the nation’s mainstream, from blacks in The Color Purple to Dominican-Americans in In the Heights to gays in La Cage Aux Folles, even the current The Book of Mormon.
“All these shows were essentially modeled upon the Jewish example. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote In the Heights, has noted that one of the shows that influenced him was Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler has the distinction of being the first musical to portray Jews in their own world as opposed to trying to fit in to another culture,” Hecht concluded.
For more on the influence of Jews on the American musical, watch “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” January 1 at 9:30 pm on WGBH Channel 2.
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