From Barbra Streisand’s unforgettable performances, to the Gershwins’ beautiful harmonies, to Mel Brooks’ off-beat humor, a distinctive mark has been left on the American musical by the Jewish community. Michael Kantor’s fun-filled and eye-opening documentary, “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” sheds light on this blatant yet rarely stated fact.
Port City residents interested in the Jewish community or the Broadway musical should mark their calendars for this Sunday, October 13th, and come out to Thalian Hall for a screening of Kantor’s film. The acclaimed documentarian will be in attendance fielding questions after the film’s finish. The documentary examines the lasting impact of the Jewish community’s extensive involvement with the distinctly American hallmark that is Broadway. The event will serve as a preview for Wilmington’s first annual Jewish Film Festival, which will occur in the spring.
No stranger to the topic of Broadway, Kantor previously created the six-part documentary “Broadway: The American Musical.” Kantor divulges that it took essentially nine years to create this film, after which he thought himself done with the topic. However, after Barbara Brilliant, a producer in Boston, inquired why he hadn’t explored the Jewish community’s profound influence on Broadway he returned to the topic and created “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy.”
“The hypothesis was provided by our executive producer, Albert Tapper,” Kantor explains. “Al kept insisting that we literally pose the question at the top of the film—‘Why have almost all of the songwriters on Broadway been Jewish?’—and then answer it. It’s not difficult to prove statistically; what is difficult is to figure out what aspects of Jewish life were filtered into the musical theater form. Thankfully, the great talents I interviewed had lots of ideas about this, and they often demonstrated those ideas for the camera.”
The film features interviews from Sondheim, Mary Rodgers, Harold Prince and Mel Brooks, among others. One of the event’s Q&A panelists, Philip Furia, is also interviewed in the film. Furia, a UNCW professor who has written several books about Jewish songwriters, says, “I think [attendees] will be fascinated by the idea of how many Jewish songwriters, writers, choreographers really contributed to the Broadway musical. I thought I knew a lot about the Broadway musical, and I was surprised when I watched it at how powerful the Jewish influence is.”
The film delves deeply into Broadway’s relationship with Yiddish theatre and even commentates on Irving Berlin’s subliminal use of a melody from a Jewish prayer when writing “God Bless America.”
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Jewish contribution to the musical,” Kantor elaborates. “Without the musical and literary contributions of Jewish songwriters, the musical wouldn’t exist as we know it.”
While the film educates, it also offers up a lot of fun with archival footage of Broadway musicals, including stars like Nathan Lane and Barbra Streisand. “It’s a wonderful film, especially if you like Broadway musicals,” Barbara Waxman, a member of the public relations committee, describes. “I love the music of Broadway, but I didn’t necessarily think of it in a Jewish frame. When I was listening to ‘Oklahoma,’ I was thinking about [the state] Oklahoma. The same with ‘South Pacific’: I wasn’t thinking of the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it. But here they were, setting the scene for the military in the South Pacific during World War II. The film pulls together a different perspective really well.”
Along with the screening, the event will have food, lovely people and hopefully an exciting discussion. Lively panelists, like Furia and fellow UNCW professor Todd Berliner, will partake in the question-and-answer session, which will be moderated by Bucky Stein.
“They’re really hoping there will be some good questions from the audience,” Waxman says. “So, it won’t be a lot of prepared lecturing, it should be a nice dialogue”
As far as the broad scope of the screening and Wilmington’s first annual Jewish Film Festival, those involved hope this will serve as a jumping-off point. “This is just a little taste,” Waxman declares. “We hope to whet people’s interests.”
The actual festival will span over three days April 3rd through the 6th. It will feature shorts and four feature-length screenings.
“We really need donations,” Waxman emphasizes. “If you go to this first screening, you can get more information about what’s going to be happening in the spring, and you can get more information about how to donate not only money but your time and skills.”
Those interested in attending the screening of “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” can purchase tickets, which are $10, at the Thalian Hall box office. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate community, participate in a discussion featuring acclaimed filmmaker Michael Kantor—whose upcoming three-part series “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle,” also a study of the influences of the Jewish community, will air on Tuesday, October 15th on PBS from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. (check local listings).
Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy
October 13th, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall Main Stage
Tickets: $10 or $8, students