Read Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers Online

Authors: Stewart F. Lane

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Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers

JEWS ON BROADWAY

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JEWS ON BROADWAY

An Historical Survey of

Performers, Playwrights, Composers,

Lyricists and Producers

Stewart F. Lane

McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Jefferson, North Carolina, and London

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGUING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Lane, Stewart F.

Jews on Broadway: an historical survey of performers,

playwrights, composers, lyricists and producers / Stewart F. Lane.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-7864-5917-9

softcover : 55# alkaline paper

1. Jews in the performing arts — New York (State)— New York —

History — 20th century. 2. Jewish entertainers — New York (State)— New York — History — 20th century. 3. Jews in popular culture — United States. 4. Theater — New York (State)— New York — History — 20th century. 5. Musicals — New York (State)—

New York — History — 20th century. 6. Broadway (New York, N.Y.) I. Title.

PN1590.J48L35 2011

791.089' 924 — dc22

2010051309

BRITISH LIBRARY CATALOGUING DATA ARE AVAILABLE

© 2011 Stewart F. Lane. All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying
or recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.

Front cover images © 2011 Shutterstock

Manufactured in the United States of America

McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640

www.mcfarlandpub.com

To my wife, Bonnie,

who has always encouraged me

to push the envelope

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

ix

Preface

1

Introduction: Setting the Stage

3

1. Immigration, Yiddish Theater and Building Broadway

7

2. Part of the Melting Pot: From Vaudeville to Broadway 30

3. The Music of Broadway: Classic Composers, Legendary Lyricists

47

4. Group Theater, Acting Teachers and Life During Wartime 71

5. From Communism to the Catskills

94

6. Jewish Themes, Legends and Life in the 1960s and 1970s 119

7. Young Playwrights with a Message, Inflation, Disney and Me

149

8. The New Millennium Sees Broadway Breakthroughs:

Veterans and Newcomers

176

Epilogue

195

Chapter Notes

197

Bibliography

199

Further Reading

203

Index

207

vii

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Acknowledgments

Putting together a book of this nature is not an easy task. With that in mind, I’d like to acknowledge several people for their work and contributions.

Thank you to Rich Mintzer for assistance; Janis Gibson for research; Ellen Adler, Nahma Sandow, Charles Strouse and Tovah Feldshuh for input; Tom Oppenheim, Karen Schauben and of course the many Jewish talents who have contributed for the past 100-plus years to Broadway.

ix

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Preface

“In many ways, the story of Broadway is also intertwined
with the story of America.”

Barack Obama, White House Music

Series Event Saluting Broadway,

July 19, 2010

When I first came up with the idea of writing a book on the history of the American theater in the 20th century, I was daunted. What an unimaginable undertaking. Huge, epic in its proportions and so complex with its multi-faceted, interconnected families, names and shows, I knew it would be a significant challenge. However, because I love the theater and have spent my entire life learning about it, working in it and being a part of it, I began to break it down.

Each century is, of course, unique. The 20th century, however, was extra special for the American theater because it finally came into its own. The theater of a country reflects that country’s culture and politics.

The early attempts at playwriting and musicals in the United States could actually be called British theater or, at best, Colonial theater. General Burgoyne, the English military strategist, was also a playwright and had his work performed in New York, even as he tried to level the city.

As the nation began to mature, it slowly developed its own identity, and this was reflected in the works of the writers and poets of the time.

American theater in the 19th century tended to center on melodramas and local issues: largely newcomers (greenhorns) arriving as immi grants in a new land, or city mouse versus country mouse themes. President Lincoln was watching the melodrama
My Country Cousin
at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., when he was assassinated. Although emi-1

Preface

grants were constantly streaming into America during this century, like the Irish escaping the potato famine or the German Jews escaping persecution, it wasn’t until the next century that theater matured and started to find a voice from a generation either born overseas or emigrating as children.

It was from this point of view that I was inspired to write this book.

America is a wonderful country that embraces people from all nations.

It is this mix of cultures that makes Americans truly citizens of the world.

So, starting with the Jewish contribution to American theater, I embarked on what I hope will be an extensive study of this rich and productive period (in the future I hope to explore the Irish, African American and Asian influences as well).

The Jewish contribution during this period cannot be emphasized enough. Moving decade by decade, I will explore the gradual growth and variations, politics and nuances of a growing art form and industry.

Although these plays and musicals do not conform to numbers (nothing just ends because the decade does), the reader will see how everyone works in tandem. He will see not only how one generation is influenced by the previous generation, but also how it reaches out and provides sup port and direction for the next generation.

Having been born mid-century, I hope I can bridge the inherent gap that generations bring. I can stretch out both my arms and touch the generations of my grandparents and parents with one and use my own personal experience with the other. The more time that passes, the more difficult it is to retain the spirit, temperament, tone, reasons, emotions and passions that tell us how and why something was done or why we were inspired. I don’t want to lose that. I want to preserve that which we have learned from each new generation. The performing arts are how one generation talks to another. In many cases I have had the privilege and honor of working with some of the most successful and influential people in the industry. I have watched, listened and learned from them, and hopefully I will pass what I have learned on to future generations.

It is in this spirit that I present you with their story, our story.

2

Introduction:

Setting the Stage

Before we take a look at over a century of Jewish contributions to Broadway, let’s take a moment to reflect upon the roots of such theatrical participation. How did the Jewish people come to have such a passion and a strong connection to the theater? From where did this theatrical enthusiasm evolve?

There are some who link the Jewish involvement in theater to the plays created and performed for the holiday Purim, called Purim Shpiels.

The holiday custom dates back centuries and recounts the events out -

lined in the book of Esther. Joyous in nature, the shpiels were originally designed to be family entertainment, and today are often presented for young children to learn the story of the holiday. However, in the 16th century, Purim Shpiels turned into professional performances with groups of touring actors playing the roles, complete with costumes and makeup.

By offering a mocking commentary, the Purim Shpiel presented a Jewish version of political justice in the world, not unlike the political satire that would become a large part of the Jewish playwright’s repertoire.

Performing, for the Jewish people, was also a manner of self-expression in societies in which they dealt with persecution. It was a means of storytelling outside of the synagogue, which was especially important when the Jewish people were unable to practice their religion publicly.

Theater also served as a means of growth and learning when formal education was hard to come by.

Part of the impetus for Yiddish theater, which precluded the Jewish involvement in American theater, came from the Jewish Enlightenment throughout Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, called 3

Introduction

Haskalah. This was a philosophical and social movement that encouraged the Jewish people to explore secular subjects and to enter fields such as agriculture, science and the arts. Haskalah influenced education by stress-ing not only Jewish teaching but also the need to put emphasis on a secular education, which meant learning both Hebrew and the European languages. The idea was to reach out beyond the Jewish community to also integrate with the larger community.

For the American Jews, the concept of Haskalah was evident in the assimilation of the Jewish immigrants into mainstream society. This was apparent first in Yiddish theater, particularly as it grew to include the works of Gordin and adaptations of classic literature not based on Jewish history. It was even more evident in the second generation of American Jews, who gravitated from Yiddish, which during the enlightenment was no longer spoken throughout most of Europe, to English-speaking theater.

Also evident from this period of enlightenment was the writing of books that presented Jewish characters in current settings rather than focusing on historic events or religious themes. This too spilled over to the American Jewish writers, including the many playwrights who focused on the current Jewish experience as it pertained to being part of American customs and culture. While Haskalah ended in Europe, it had lasting effects on Jewish theater and the arts.

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