A PBS documentary premiering on New Year's Day traces the history of Jews' fingerprints on America's greatest shows, complete with interviews, archival performance footage, and, of course, plenty of show tunes.
If you’re not a fan of marathons of classic shows like The Twilight Zone on SyFy or The Three Stooges on Antenna, and if you have no interest in any of the six college football bowl games running from noon to midnight, then New Year’s Day on television can indeed resemble a “vast wasteland.”
But for 90 minutes on Jan. 1, 2013, Michael Kantor will do his best to disprove Newton Minow’s most famous statement. As part of this season’s Great Performances on PBS, Kantor will premiere Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, a documentary that is part oral history, part American history and part greatest hits show.
Kantor, who is credited as the writer, producer and director of the film, is no stranger to the subject of Broadway history. His six-part documentary series, Broadway: The American Musical, won the 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Series. And a lifetime spent studying, producing and chronicling the theater is evident in the scene with which he chose to open Broadway Musicals: David Hyde Pierce, who originated the role of Sir Robin in Monty Python’s Spamalot, is shown crooning, “In any great adventure/If you don’t want to lose/You won’t succeed on Broadway/If you don’t have any Jews.”
Those lines wouldn’t produce the kind of laughs they receive on a nightly basis if they weren’t grounded in fact. And Kantor shows, through performances, interviews and archival footage, how a line can be traced from the Yiddishkeit of the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century through the first Gershwin musicals straight to Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked and countless other productions.
Hugh Jackman’s strapping interpretation of Oklahoma bristles with virile musicality; Leonard Bernstein’s daughter and Adolph Green’s widow jointly tell the story of how Bernstein and Green met at summer camp (Bernstein the music counselor, Green the camper), where they built a lifelong friendship on the basis of a shared encyclopedic knowledge of classical music.
And throughout the film, like a soundtrack that keeps moving the production forward, Kantor weaves in rarely and never-before-seen performance footage along what he calls “the engine of the film, firing on all cylinders.” A glimpse of Fanny Brice onstage; Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America” in front of a phalanx of Boy Scouts; and Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bach essentially workshoping Fiddler on the Roof in front of a studio audience on the 1960s CBS show, American Musical Theatre, are just a few examples of what viewers can expect to see.
To hear both Kantor and executive producer Barbara Brilliant tell it, the film almost didn’t happen. “When Barbara first called me up” in 2009 about making the documentary, Kantor recalls, “I was kind of, ‘been there, done that’ about it. I had really done a great job with the six-part series, and I didn’t know how I could top that.” But Brilliant wouldn’t take no for an answer. The former musical theater actress and television personality remembers that she raptly watched all of Kantor’s original documentary, “but he he didn’t tell the story of how the Jews were the main architects of the Broadway musical.”
In fact, despite a number of books written on the subject, there had never been any kind of documentary film about the primary role played by Jewish composers in creating this uniquely American art form — no chronicle of, for example, how Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant whose earliest memory was of hiding in a ditch from a pogrom when he was 5 years old, went on to create the most popular Christmas song (“White Christmas”) and Easter song (“Easter Parade”) — and the song so popular it almost replaced the “Star-Spangled Banner” (“God Bless America”).
Broadway Musicals covers Berlin’s accomplishments, and provides insight and perspective as well, most notably when Mary Ellin Barrett, Berlin’s daughter, tells the story of ministers across the country rising up to protest the public’s embrace of “God Bless America,” arguing that a Jew couldn’t possibly know how to bless America.
It’s just as well that those ministers never got to see the part of the documentary that Kantor himself found to be the most surprising part of the film. Maury Yeston, the award-winning composer of Nine, among other musicals, breaks down “God Bless America,” note by note, to show how Berlin actually took the melody from Jewish liturgical music. (Yeston does a similar breakdown of Kurt Weill’s “September Song.”)
Kantor is constantly mining nuggets of the forgotten and unknown history of Jewish Broadway. The intro to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is actually a klezmer clarinet. Charles Strouse, the composer of Annie, was almost burned alive by anti-Semitic co-workers on a tobacco farm. Cole Porter, the lone non-Jew in the musical theater pantheon, discloses that he had finally figured out the secret to writing hits: “I’m going to write Jewish tunes.” West Side Story was originally going to be East Side Story, with the conflict occurring between Jews and gentiles — until Jerome Robbins realized that the story was too close to the old hit play, Abie’s Irish Rose.
“My hope is that the film will appeal not just to Jewish viewers, but also to anyone who is interested in American cultural history,” Kantor says. Considering he has created what amounts to an insider’s guide to the history of musical theater in America that will leave viewers simultaneously wishing to learn more and see a musical, mission accomplished.
If You Watch
WHYY Channel 12
9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 1