Theories vary as to why so many of the Broadway composers and lyricists were Jewish...was it their exposure to Jewish cantorial music in the synagogue, the influence of Yiddish theatre, the traditions of Klezmer music, etc.?
No one is really sure, but one thing is certain, American Jews played an outsized role in the Golden Age of Broadway.
From Richard Rodgers and his collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, George and Ira Gershwin, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Schwartz, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Sheldon Harnick, and Marc Shaiman; and the shows they wrote, “West Side Story,” “South Pacific,” “Showboat,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Chicago,” “Gypsy,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Annie,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Funny Girl,” “Oklahoma!,” “Wicked,” and “Hairspray,” to name a few, Broadway wouldn't be Broadway without their contributions.
As a 2013 PBS documentary by Michael Kantor on the same subject pointed out, “These are the popular songs that our nation took to war, sang to their children at bedtime, and whistled while waiting for the bus. Taken in total they now comprise the vast majority of what is now commonly referred to as the American songbook.”
A new show, “To Life,” presented by Black Box Booking and Hy Juter now running at the Willow Theatre at Sugar Sand Park in Boca Raton through Sunday, Feb. 3 tells the stories of the music celebrating the contributions of Jewish composers to the Golden Age of Broadway.
Created and written by Scott Siegel ("Broadway Unplugged") the musical revue is directed by Boca Raton's Shari Upbin.
“I’ve assembled a group of performers exhibiting ‘a gutsy passion,’” Upbin says. “When they come out – they all have the same commitment to craft and songs. The energy, combined with the enthusiasm and passion of the performers results in an entertaining and satisfying show.”
The revue is narrated by local actor Jeffrey Bruce who also acts and sings in the production.
He recounts the history of Jewish Broadway all the time dispensing some insider dish. (Did you know that Ethel Merman, who was not Jewish, brought a ham sandwich to a Passover Seder?)
(Or that "West Side Story " was originally" East Side Story" with the Jews vs. the Irish gangs in New York City?)
The piece opens aptly with Irving Berlin’s “There's No Business Like Show Business and segues into Spamalot’s “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway If You Don’t Have any Jews,” performed by Bruce.
The retrospective, while informative, comes to life from the sheer talent of its performers.
Starring Alix Paige, Broadway actress Jodie Langel, Carbonell Award winner Mark Sanders and two-time Carbonell Award winner Wayne LeGette, the four bring their star power to bear in a minimal stage production.
They are accompanied on piano by the unflappable Paul Reekie who also proves he can sing with his rendition of Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano.”
Highlights of the 90-minute show include Gershwin's “I've Got Rhythm,” performed in a rousing rendition by Sanders, a flirty and flirtatious “I Can Cook, Too” by Page from Leonard Bernstein's musical “On the Town” and Paige and Langel’s dueling roles from West Side Story’s "America" with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Sanders delivers a moving rendition of “Maria” from the same show, which showcases the range and depth of his voice.
The audience joined in to sing along with LeGette as he sang Jerry Herman’s “Shalom,” from the 1961 musical “Milk and Honey,” and joined with Sanders as he delivered Irving Berlin's love song to his wife, “I'll be Loving you Always.”
In front of a poster of Zero Mostel, LeGette stomped on stage as Tevye in a vignette from “Fiddler on the Roof,” in a crowd-pleasing “If I Were a Rich Man.”
The whole cast came out to perform “Sunrise Sunset” and “To Life!” winning over the audience completely.
Paige delivered a stirring rendition of “Funny Girl’s” “Don't Rain on My Parade,” and Langel's upped the ante with her rendition of “People,” from the same show.
Making due with minimal sets and accoutrements and by sheer force of the cast’s talent and professionalism, show was elevated to a higher level.
Shout-outs to Nicole Stav as Stage Manager, and Jason Pierre as Assistant Stage Manager. Technical crew includes Laura Fulton (Lighting) and Andrés Alessandro Beuses Casasanta (Sound).
The crowd was toe tapping and head-bobbing throughout the duration.
“I had a smile on my face the whole time,” said the woman in the seat next to me, and I had to agree.
"To Life" will run through Feb. 3 at the Willow Theatre in Sugar Sand Park, 300 South Military Trail in Boca Raton. Tickets are $35; group rates (6 or more tickets purchased in one transaction) are $30. Tickets can be purchased on line at www.willowtheatre.org or by phone at 561-347-3948.