For Broadway Musicals, Jewish Involvement Proved to Be Just the Ticket

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In Spamalot, the musical based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sir Robin emphatically tells King Arthur that despite having animals from zoos or the finest of reviews, they won’t succeed on Broadway if they “don’t have any Jews.”

And, it appears, he is not the only one to have made this observation.

On Nov. 15, more than 40 people gathered at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel to hear Tom Stretton, a past Cheltenham High School teacher and Cabrini College professor as well as Broadway enthusiast, in a program titled “Do You Hear the Music? — Jews and the Broadway Musical.”

Stretton — who is not Jewish — discussed the evolution of the Broadway musical, thought of as the great American contribution to theater, and the influence of Jewish composers and Jewish music.

Estelle Fleischer, a board member of the sisterhood at BZBI, which put on the event, had heard Stretton speak on the topic at a Hadassah luncheon last year and knew this was a program more people would enjoy.

“I was so pleased with what I heard, and figured everyone would want to hear him,” she said.

The topic has a wide appeal, as well, she added.

Stretton was introduced to musical theater by accident. When he was young, he was visiting his grandmother in Philadelphia, who took him to the movies. As he was under the belief that they were going to see Creature From the Black Lagoon in 3D, he was surprised to be walking into the theater to see The King and I.

He was immediately enthralled with the art of the musical. Ultimately, he realized there was one aspect of the music missing in these shows.

“It took me a long time to really understand there is a lot of literature on the American musical theater, but there’s not much about the fact that it’s Jewish music,” he said before his presentation. “I decided to do some research about that.”

He found that with a few exceptions — such as Meredith Willson and Cole Porter, whom he later referred to as the token WASPs, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, (“I suspect he’s not Jewish,” he said with a laugh) — “really, it’s Jewish music.”

Equipped with a CD player loaded with the showtunes that showcased the Jewish influence the composers who wrote them had on Broadway, Stretton gave a lively presentation on how composers like Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein incorporated Jewish values in their writing.

He played clips from classics such as The King and I, The Sound of Music and Oklahoma! — including Oklahoma!’s titular song, which the audience sang along to, as Stretton exclaimed, “That’s the invention of East Coast Jews!”

These examples served to show that what these Jewish writers did “was take values and ideals that were fundamental American values and ideals, and Jewish values and ideals and they spoke for the whole nation,” Stretton said.

He referenced how Fiddler on the Roof can be seen as a Jewish musical, but its themes of “tradition” and “change” resonate across a wider audience.

A key piece of music he used to further his point was “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which he said was the reason they wrote the musical.

The shortest song in the musical at just one minute and 10 seconds long, the message of the song — and, ultimately, of the musical itself — is one that resonates with everyone, he said.

“What’s the argument of South Pacific?” he asked. “The argument is that you shouldn’t judge people based on the color of their skin — if that isn’t quintessentially American and quintessentially Jewish, I don’t know what is.”

Stretton delved into the personal lives of composers like Irving Berlin, to show that these Jewish writers wrote Jewish music, but their messages were universal.

“It’s Jewish music, but they didn’t really write Jewish songs — they wrote songs for everyone, and that’s easy to forget,” he said.

Herbert and Leah Zarge came to the program, which they said was “better than excellent,” from Cherry Hill, N.J.

Herbert was surprised by “most of the things” Stretton talked about, particularly the universal element of many Jewish values and ideals found in most Broadway hits. The idea that Jews created much of the Broadway musical canon was another revelation Zarge had during the program.

“The idea that Fiddler on the Roof could play in Japan [referencing one story Stretton told] and have the Japanese people feel it was about them shows the universality of Jewish plays and values,” he said, “or that Jews of New York can create a play like Oklahoma! that feels like it was in the Midwest.”

Selma Harris Forstater, a member of BZBI, thought Stretton was “wonderful.”

“It brought back memories of these shows and the people who wrote the music,” she said.

Stretton illustrated how prevalent Jewish writers’ influences were on Broadway by asking the audience how many works they recognized as he launched into a quite long-winded list of musicals created by Jewish writers: Showboat, Anything Goes, Porgy and Bess, On the Town, Carousel, Brigadoon, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Gypsy, Camelot, Hairspray … and the list goes on.

“The Broadway musical is an enormous part of our cultural heritage and spirit,” he said. “It’s Jewish and American and it has provided great experiences and memories.”

He closed his presentation with a variation on Alan Lerner’s Camelot, which he had referenced earlier while speaking about John F. Kennedy’s affinity for one particular line in the
musical: “It should not be forgot, that there has been a spot for magic, music, moments. Broadway is a Jewish Camelot.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740

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