Broadway Musicals – A Jewish Legacy (2012)

by | Jun 18, 2013 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Broadway Musicals – A Jewish Legacy (2012)

Performances and interviews with: Matthew Broderick, Zero Mostel, Nathan Lane, Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, Joel Grey, Harold Price, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Tilson Thomas & many others
Director: Michael Kantor
Studio: PBS/ Athena/ Acorn Media AMP-8984 [5/7/13]
Video: 1.66:1 for 16:9 
Audio: English DD 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: 2nd disc with three hours of longer interviews, clips and performances; Bio of Joel Grey, Printed 16-p. viewer’s guide with more on Jewish Broadway and an intro by Exec. Producer Barbara Brilliant
Length: 84 minutes
Rating: *****

A most entertaining documentary which is provocative, instructive and often hilarious. The subject, which really has not been dealt with before on TV, is the unique and over-riding role which Jewish composers and lyricists have had in the creation of modern America’s second original genre of music (after jazz): The Broadway musical. It deals with the start of the genre in the Yiddishkeit section of New York City with its many Jewish immigrants from Russia, Germany and elsewhere. Perhaps the viewer hasn’t given this consideration before, but aside from a couple of exceptions such as Cole Porter, nearly everyone involved in Broadway productions then and now were and are Jewish. More so than even the usual jokes about Hollywood. There is even a theory expounded that Porter had more success with his tunes after he incorporated some subtle Jewish harmonic devices into them. The point is made that Jews were barred or discouraged from so many other walks of life, and turned to Broadway where they could be free and achieve something. There is also the fact that many Jews had to change their names in order to find success.

One of the talking heads early in the documentary is Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, whose grandparents were the Thomashefskys, who were pioneers in the American Yiddish theater in NYC. And a lot of details about Leonard Bernstein are spilled by his daughter Jamie in both the documentary and the bonus interviews, such as the story that his father had refused to pay for his piano lessons since he was expected to join in his father’s hair company and not be a “klezmer musician.” When an interviewer asked his father, after Bernstein became a central figure in music, why he did that, he said: “How was I to know he would be Leonard Bernstein?” Another talking head in the interviews is non-Jewish Eric Idle, who says he is the most Jewish of all the Pythons. And of course Mel Brooks and his over-the-top Producers are given plenty of clips and commentary.

The bio on Joel Grey is fascinating (I didn’t know he has published three books of his photography—including the latest, all shot with his smartphone), but he doesn’t narrate much of the film as he is listed and only appears briefly in the clip about his performances in Cabaret. The documentary has great clips of NYC in the past, scenes from Marx Bros. movies and important Broadway shows. The film opens and closes with David Hyde Pierce singing an hilarious tune from Monty Python’s Spamalot, about how one can’t expect to have success with a Broadway show unless you have Jews in it. It’s revealed in the interviews that following the New York premiere of the show, the tune was dropped because audiences in other cities didn’t get it.

—John Sunier


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